Applications of diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma

Neuroradiology. 2010 Sep;52(9):773-84. doi: 10.1007/s00234-010-0743-0. Epub 2010 Jul 15.


In the head and neck, squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most common tumour types. Currently, the primary imaging modalities for initial locoregional staging are computed tomography and-to a lesser extent-magnetic resonance imaging, whilst [(18)F]fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) positron emission tomography has additional value in the detection of subcentimetric metastatic lymph nodes and of tumour recurrence after chemoradiotherapy (CRT). However, dependency on the morphological and size-related criteria of anatomical imaging and the limited spatial resolution and FDG avidity of inflammation in metabolic imaging may reduce diagnostic accuracy in the head and neck. Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DWI) is a noninvasive imaging technique that measures the differences in water mobility in different tissue microstructures. Water mobility is likely influenced by cell size, density, and cellular membrane integrity and is quantified by means of the apparent diffusion coefficient. As such, the technique is able to differentiate tumoural tissue from normal tissue, inflammatory tissue and necrosis. In this article, we examine the use of DWI in head and neck cancer, focussing on technique optimization and image interpretation. Afterwards, the value of DWI will be outlined for clinical questions regarding nodal staging, lesion characterization, differentiation of post-CRT tumour recurrence from necrosis and inflammation, and predictive imaging towards treatment outcome. The possible consequences of adding DWI towards therapeutic management are outlined.

MeSH terms

  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / diagnosis*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Image Enhancement / methods*
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity