Diffusion MRI is used extensively to investigate changes in white matter microstructure related to brain development and pathology. Ageing, however, is also associated with significant white and grey matter loss which in turn can lead to cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) based partial volume artefacts in diffusion MRI metrics. This is especially problematic in regions prone to CSF contamination, such as the fornix and the genu of corpus callosum, structures that pass through or close to the ventricles respectively. The aim of this study was to model the effects of CSF contamination on diffusion MRI metrics, and to evaluate different post-acquisition strategies to correct for CSF-contamination: Controlling for whole brain volume and correcting on a voxel-wise basis using the Free Water Elimination (FWE) approach. Using the fornix as an exemplar of a structure prone to CSF-contamination, corrections were applied to tract-specific and voxel-based [tract based spatial statistics (TBSS)] analyses of empirical DT-MRI data from 39 older adults (53-93 years of age). In addition to significant age-related decreases in whole brain volume and fornix tissue volume fraction, age was also associated with a reduction in mean fractional anisotropy and increase in diffusivity metrics in the fornix. The experimental data agreed with the simulations in that diffusivity metrics (mean diffusivity, axial and radial diffusivity) were more prone to partial volume CSF-contamination errors than fractional anisotropy. After FWE-based voxel-by-voxel partial volume corrections, the significant positive correlations between age and diffusivity metrics, in particular with axial diffusivity, disappeared whereas the correlation with anisotropy remained. In contrast, correcting for whole brain volume had little effect in removing these spurious correlations. Our study highlights the importance of correcting for CSF-contamination partial volume effects in the structures of interest on a voxel-by-voxel basis prior to drawing inferences about underlying changes in white matter structures and have implications for the interpretation of many recent diffusion MRI results in ageing and disease.
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