Histological validation of DW-MRI tractography in human postmortem tissue

Cereb Cortex. 2013 Feb;23(2):442-50. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs036. Epub 2012 Feb 17.


Despite several previous attempts, histological validation of diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (DW-MRI)-based tractography as true axonal fiber pathways remains difficult. In the present study, we establish a method to compare histological and tractography data precisely enough for statements on the level of single tractography pathways. To this end, we used carbocyanine dyes to trace connections in human postmortem tissue and aligned them to high-resolution DW-MRI of the same tissue processed within the diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) formalism. We provide robust definitions of sensitivity (true positives) and specificity (true negatives) for DTI tractography and characterize tractography paths in terms of receiver operating characteristics. With sensitivity and specificity rates of approximately 80%, we could show a clear correspondence between histological and inferred tracts. Furthermore, we investigated the effect of fractional anisotropy (FA) thresholds for the tractography and identified FA values between 0.02 and 0.08 as optimal in our study. Last, we validated the course of entire tractography curves to move beyond correctness determination based on pairs of single points on a tract. Thus, histological techniques, in conjunction with alignment and processing tools, may serve as an important validation method of DW-MRI on the level of inferred tractography projections between brain areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Area Under Curve
  • Autopsy
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods*
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology*
  • ROC Curve
  • Sensitivity and Specificity