Simultaneous imaging of locus coeruleus and substantia nigra with a quantitative neuromelanin MRI approach

Magn Reson Imaging. 2014 Dec;32(10):1301-6. doi: 10.1016/j.mri.2014.07.003. Epub 2014 Jul 31.


Quantitative MRI of neuromelanin (NM) containing structures (referred to as NM-MRI) in the brainstem, namely the locus coeruleus (LC) and substantia nigra (SN), may assist with the early detection of Parkinson's disease (PD) and Alzheimer's disease (AD) as well as differential diagnosis in the early disease stages. In this study, two gradient echo (GRE) sequences with magnetization transfer contrast (MTC) preparation pulses were developed to simultaneously image the LC and SN. This has been a challenge with NM-MRI techniques used in previous studies due to the relatively high specific absorption rate (SAR) induced by these techniques. In addition, a semi-automated quantitative analysis scheme was applied to estimate volumes and contrast-to-noise ratios (CNR) of the LC and SN based on segmentation of both structures. Compared to a T1-weighted turbo spin echo (TSE) sequence typically used for simultaneous imaging of the LC and SN, the two GRE-MTC sequences exhibited improved performance in terms of higher sensitivity (in CNR) in imaging the SN and lower SAR during the scans. A multiple-measurement protocol was adopted as well so that motion degraded measurements could be removed and artifacts associated with motion could be corrected. The present approach has demonstrated advantages in image acquisition (lower SAR and higher sensitivity), image pre-processing (with motion correction) and quantitative image analysis (segmentation-based estimation of volume and CNR) when compared with existing NM-MRI approaches. This approach has potential for detection and monitoring of neurodegeneration in LC and SN in disease states including AD and PD.

Keywords: Locus coeruleus; Neuromelanin MRI; Quantitative measurement; Substantia nigra.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Artifacts
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Locus Coeruleus / pathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Melanins / chemistry*
  • Middle Aged
  • Motion
  • Parkinson Disease / pathology
  • Pattern Recognition, Automated
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Substantia Nigra / pathology*
  • Young Adult


  • Melanins
  • neuromelanin