Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has become the most widely used modality for visualizing regional brain activation in response to sensorimotor or cognitive tasks. While the majority of fMRI studies have used blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast as a marker for neural activation, baseline drift effects result in poor sensitivity for detecting slow variations in neural activity. By contrast, drift effects are minimized in arterial spin labeling (ASL) perfusion contrast, primarily as a result of successive pairwise subtraction between images acquired with and without labeling. Recent data suggest that ASL contrast shows stable noise characteristics over the entire frequency spectrum, which makes it suitable for studying low-frequency events in brain function. The present study investigates the relative sensitivities of ASL and BOLD contrast in detecting changes in motor cortex activation over a spectrum of frequencies of experimental design, where the alternating period between the resting state and activation is varied from 30 s up to 24 hr. The results demonstrate that 1) ASL contrast can detect differences in motor cortex activation over periods of minutes, hours, and even days; 2) the functional sensitivity of ASL contrast becomes superior to that of BOLD contrast when the alternating period between the resting state and activation is greater than a few minutes; and 3) task activation measured by ASL tends to have less intersubject variability than BOLD contrast. The improved sensitivity of the ASL contrast for low task frequency and longitudinal studies, along with its superior power in group analysis, is expected to extend the range of experimental designs that can be studied using fMRI.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.