Tractography as a method for mapping brain connectivity




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Purpose. Mapping the brain and its complex connectivity has proved a challenging feat for neuroscience, though with the development of diffusion tensor imaging and tractography, we are one step closer to understanding brain anatomical connections. This method utilizes diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging, which takes advantage of the Brownian motion of water molecules, to produce a diffusion tensor. In the white matter of the brain, diffusion varies in direction due to cellular membranes and myelin, and the diffusion tensor measures this anisotropic diffusivity to indicate possible tissue orientation. The generalized q-sampling imaging tractography method, developed by Frank Yeh in 2010, uses the diffusion tensor to approximate the course of white matter tracts and can be used to determine the exact location and termination of white matter bundles to assess connectivity between and within different brain regions. Despite limitations that decrease the accuracy of white matter tracking, tractography remains the only method to visualize white matter trajectories in vivo and non-invasively. Though commonly used for human diffusion-weighted images, here we verify tractography as a method to visualize and measure white matter trajectories in the rat brain. Methods. A male 3-month Sprague Dawley rat was used to acquire DWI images that were analyzed using DSI Studio. The DWI was superimposed with the corresponding T2W image and regions of interest (ROIs) were drawn in the corpus callosum and were applied via the built-in Waxholm Space rat atlas. Fiber tracking was seeded from the ROI, and fractional anisotropy, quantitative anisotropy, isotropy, mean diffusivity, axial diffusivity, and radial diffusivity was calculated at each ROI by DSI software. Results. Tractography of the corpus callosum was easily visualized using both drawn and atlas-applied ROIs. Fiber tractography from both ROIs included fibers from the internal and external capsules to ensure the integrity of all corpus callosum fibers. Diffusion metrics were not drastically different between the two seeding methods. Conclusion. This study presents tractography as a tool for visualizing white matter tracts and quantifying different diffusion metrics. Using both hand-drawn regions and regions from the rat atlas, white matter tracts in diseased brains can be compared to controls to measure several aspects of pathology, such as edema, axonal integrity, and axonal density. One application includes the imaging and quantification of both acute and chronic stroke, which exhibit different pathologies that can be visualized and measured with diffusion metrics, allowing for more precise targets of therapy. The use of tractography in adjunct with other established methods can improve the understanding of disease and assist in the development of better treatment.