Water diffusion changes in Wallerian degeneration and their dependence on white matter architecture

Neuroimage. 2001 Jun;13(6 Pt 1):1174-85. doi: 10.1006/nimg.2001.0765.


This study investigates water diffusion changes in Wallerian degeneration. We measured indices derived from the diffusion tensor (DT) and T2-weighted signal intensities in the descending motor pathways of patients with small chronic lacunar infarcts of the posterior limb of the internal capsule on one side. We compared these measurements in the healthy and lesioned sides at different levels in the brainstem caudal to the primary lesion. We found that secondary white matter degeneration is revealed by a large reduction in diffusion anisotropy only in regions where fibers are arranged in isolated bundles of parallel fibers, such as in the cerebral peduncle. In regions where the degenerated pathway crosses other tracts, such as in the rostral pons, paradoxically there is almost no change in diffusion anisotropy, but a significant change in the measured orientation of fibers. The trace of the diffusion tensor is moderately increased in all affected regions. This allows one to differentiate secondary and primary fiber loss where the increase in trace is considerably higher. We show that DT-MRI is more sensitive than T2-weighted MRI in detecting Wallerian degeneration. Significant diffusion abnormalities are observed over the entire trajectory of the affected pathway in each patient. This finding suggests that mapping degenerated pathways noninvasively with DT-MRI is feasible. However, the interpretation of water diffusion data is complex and requires a priori information about anatomy and architecture of the pathway under investigation. In particular, our study shows that in regions where fibers cross, existing DT-MRI-based fiber tractography algorithms may lead to erroneous conclusion about brain connectivity.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anisotropy
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / physiology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Diffusion
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement*
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Fibers / pathology
  • Nerve Fibers / physiology
  • Neural Pathways / pathology
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology
  • Wallerian Degeneration / physiopathology*