J├╝rgen Finsterbusch, Department of Systems Neuroscience, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany

Diffusion-Weighted Imaging of the Spinal Cord: Shorter Acquisition Times and Access to Injuries Close to Metallic Implants

Funded in: 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020

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Problem: Diffusion-weighted MRI applied to the spinal cord and its injuries shows low image quality

Target: Imaging technique to accelerate the acquisition time and image quality

Goal: Making diffusion-weighted MRI clinically feasible for spinal cord injuries, also with metallic implants


Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an important tool for biomedical research and clinical medicine due to its ability to acquire cross-sectional images of the human body non-invasively and without ionizing radiation. Of particular interest for the central nervous system is diffusion weighting MRI because it is sensitive to the structure of the tissue on a microscopic scale and, e.g., can provide information about the integrity of nerve cells and white matter fibres. Thus, it can be used to investigate the organization of the central nervous system but also to characterize injuries and monitor their development during treatment or rehabilitation.

But while diffusion-weighted MRI is well established in the human brain, e.g. for the diagnosis of acute stroke, it is rarely applied to the spinal cord and its injuries due to the low image quality usually achieved. With a recently developed imaging technique, inner-field-of-view echo-planar imaging, a significant improvement is achieved but diffusion-weighted MRI of the spinal cord still suffers from long acquisition times and image artifacts close to metallic implants that often are present in patients with traumatic injuries.

The aim of this project is to overcome these limitations. Diffusion-weighted MRI measurements of the spinal cord will be accelerated by a factor of 2-3 by acquiring several images simultaneously and separating them during the reconstruction process. Such approaches are already available for brain applications but the method needs to be adapted to the inner-field-of-view techniques used for the spinal cord. Furthermore, more robust imaging techniques will be developed and implemented that are much less sensitive than echo-planar imaging and, thus, can provide reliable measurements even in the presence of implants. Several approaches proposed in the literature will be tested and optimized for inner fields-of-view in order to improve their performance, e.g. by ameliorating image blurring and radio frequency energy deposition.

Overall, the project is expected to make diffusion-weighted MRI clinically feasible for spinal cord injuries. This could improve the characterization of the injury considerably and have a major impact on research, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment decision and monitoring.