Review Article

The physical and biological basis of quantitative parameters derived from diffusion MRI

Gavin P Winston


Abstract: Diffusion magnetic resonance imaging is a quantitative imaging technique that measures the underlying molecular diffusion of protons. Diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) quantifies the apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) which was first used to detect early ischemic stroke. However this does not take account of the directional dependence of diffusion seen in biological systems (anisotropy).

Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) provides a mathematical model of diffusion anisotropy and is widely used. Parameters, including fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), parallel and perpendicular diffusivity can be derived to provide sensitive, but non-specific, measures of altered tissue structure. They are typically assessed in clinical studies by voxel-based or region-of-interest based analyses.

The increasing recognition of the limitations of the diffusion tensor model has led to more complex multi-compartment models such as CHARMED, AxCaliber or NODDI being developed to estimate microstructural parameters including axonal diameter, axonal density and fiber orientations. However these are not yet in routine clinical use due to lengthy acquisition times.

In this review, I discuss how molecular diffusion may be measured using diffusion MRI, the biological and physical bases for the parameters derived from DWI and DTI, how these are used in clinical studies and the prospect of more complex tissue models providing helpful micro-structural information.

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