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Design and validation of diffusion MRI models of white matter. Front Phys 2017 11;28



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Diffusion MRI is arguably the method of choice for characterizing white matter microstructure in vivo. Over the typical duration of diffusion encoding, the displacement of water molecules is conveniently on a length scale similar to that of the underlying cellular structures. Moreover, water molecules in white matter are largely compartmentalized which enables biologically-inspired compartmental diffusion models to characterize and quantify the true biological microstructure. A plethora of white matter models have been proposed. However, overparameterization and mathematical fitting complications encourage the introduction of simplifying assumptions that vary between different approaches. These choices impact the quantitative estimation of model parameters with potential detriments to their biological accuracy and promised specificity. First, we review biophysical white matter models in use and recapitulate their underlying assumptions and realms of applicability. Second, we present up-to-date efforts to validate parameters estimated from biophysical models. Simulations and dedicated phantoms are useful in assessing the performance of models when the ground truth is known. However, the biggest challenge remains the validation of the "biological accuracy" of estimated parameters. Complementary techniques such as microscopy of fixed tissue specimens have facilitated direct comparisons of estimates of white matter fiber orientation and densities. However, validation of compartmental diffusivities remains challenging, and complementary MRI-based techniques such as alternative diffusion encodings, compartment-specific contrast agents and metabolites have been used to validate diffusion models. Finally, white matter injury and disease pose additional challenges to modeling, which are also discussed. This review aims to provide an overview of the current state of models and their validation and to stimulate further research in the field to solve the remaining open questions and converge towards consensus.

Author List

Jelescu IO, Budde MD


Matthew Budde PhD Associate Professor in the Neurosurgery department at Medical College of Wisconsin

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