Development of outcome measures to assess ongoing nerve regeneration in the living animal that can be translated to human can provide extremely useful tools for monitoring the effects of therapeutic interventions to promote nerve regeneration. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), a magnetic resonance based technique, provides image contrast for nerve tracts and can be applied serially on the same subject with potential to monitor nerve fiber content. In this study, we examined the use of ex vivo high-resolution DTI for imaging intact and regenerating peripheral nerves in mice and correlated the MRI findings with electrophysiology and histology. DTI was done on sciatic nerves with crush, without crush, and after complete transection in different mouse strains. DTI measures, including fractional anisotropy (FA), parallel diffusivity, and perpendicular diffusivity were acquired and compared in segments of uninjured and crushed/transected nerves and correlated with morphometry. A comparison of axon regeneration after sciatic nerve crush showed a comparable pattern of regeneration in different mice strains. FA values were significantly lower in completely denervated nerve segments compared to uninjured sciatic nerve and this signal was restored toward normal in regenerating nerve segments (crushed nerves). Histology data indicate that the FA values and the parallel diffusivity showed a positive correlation with the total number of regenerating axons. These studies suggest that DTI is a sensitive measure of axon regeneration in mouse models and provide basis for further development of imaging technology for application to living animals and humans.
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