Diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance (MR) signals reflect information about underlying tissue microstructure and cytoarchitecture. We propose a quantitative, efficient, and robust mathematical and physical framework for representing diffusion-weighted MR imaging (MRI) data obtained in "q-space," and the corresponding "mean apparent propagator (MAP)" describing molecular displacements in "r-space." We also define and map novel quantitative descriptors of diffusion that can be computed robustly using this MAP-MRI framework. We describe efficient analytical representation of the three-dimensional q-space MR signal in a series expansion of basis functions that accurately describes diffusion in many complex geometries. The lowest order term in this expansion contains a diffusion tensor that characterizes the Gaussian displacement distribution, equivalent to diffusion tensor MRI (DTI). Inclusion of higher order terms enables the reconstruction of the true average propagator whose projection onto the unit "displacement" sphere provides an orientational distribution function (ODF) that contains only the orientational dependence of the diffusion process. The representation characterizes novel features of diffusion anisotropy and the non-Gaussian character of the three-dimensional diffusion process. Other important measures this representation provides include the return-to-the-origin probability (RTOP), and its variants for diffusion in one- and two-dimensions-the return-to-the-plane probability (RTPP), and the return-to-the-axis probability (RTAP), respectively. These zero net displacement probabilities measure the mean compartment (pore) volume and cross-sectional area in distributions of isolated pores irrespective of the pore shape. MAP-MRI represents a new comprehensive framework to model the three-dimensional q-space signal and transform it into diffusion propagators. Experiments on an excised marmoset brain specimen demonstrate that MAP-MRI provides several novel, quantifiable parameters that capture previously obscured intrinsic features of nervous tissue microstructure. This should prove helpful for investigating the functional organization of normal and pathologic nervous tissue.
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