Histologic validation of locus coeruleus MRI contrast in post-mortem tissue

Neuroimage. 2015 Jun;113:235-45. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.03.020. Epub 2015 Mar 17.


The locus coeruleus (LC) noradrenergic system regulates arousal and modulates attention through its extensive projections across the brain. LC dysfunction has been implicated in a broad range of neurodevelopmental, neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, as well as in the cognitive changes observed during normal aging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used to characterize the human LC (elevated contrast relative to surrounding structures), but there is limited understanding of the factors underlying putative LC contrast that are critical to successful biomarker development and confidence in localizing nucleus LC. We used ultra-high-field 7 T magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to acquire T1-weighted microscopy resolution images (78 μm in-plane resolution) of the LC from post-mortem tissue samples. Histological analyses were performed to characterize the distribution of tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) and neuromelanin in the scanned tissue, which allowed for direct comparison with MR microscopy images. Our results indicate that LC-MRI contrast corresponds to the location of neuromelanin cells in LC; these also correspond to norepinephrine neurons. Thus, neuromelanin appears to serve as a natural contrast agent for nucleus LC that can be used to localize nucleus LC and may have the potential to characterize neurodegenerative disease.

Keywords: Brainstem; Histology; Inversion recovery; MRI; Neuromelanin; Norepinephrine; Post-mortem.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers
  • Brain Stem / anatomy & histology
  • Brain Stem / enzymology
  • Cadaver
  • Coloring Agents
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Locus Coeruleus / anatomy & histology*
  • Locus Coeruleus / enzymology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Melanins / metabolism
  • Middle Aged
  • Postmortem Changes
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase / analysis


  • Biomarkers
  • Coloring Agents
  • Melanins
  • neuromelanin
  • Tyrosine 3-Monooxygenase