The concept of diffusion magnetic resonance (MR) imaging emerged in the mid-1980s, together with the first images of water diffusion in the human brain, as a way to probe tissue structure at a microscopic scale, although the images were acquired at a millimetric scale. Since then, diffusion MR imaging has become a pillar of modern clinical imaging. Diffusion MR imaging has mainly been used to investigate neurologic disorders. A dramatic application of diffusion MR imaging has been acute brain ischemia, providing patients with the opportunity to receive suitable treatment at a stage when brain tissue might still be salvageable, thus avoiding terrible handicaps. On the other hand, it was found that water diffusion is anisotropic in white matter, because axon membranes limit molecular movement perpendicularly to the nerve fibers. This feature can be exploited to produce stunning maps of the orientation in space of the white matter tracts and brain connections in just a few minutes. Diffusion MR imaging is now also rapidly expanding in oncology, for the detection of malignant lesions and metastases, as well as monitoring. Water diffusion is usually largely decreased in malignant tissues, and body diffusion MR imaging, which does not require any tracer injection, is rapidly becoming a modality of choice to detect, characterize, or even stage malignant lesions, especially for breast or prostate cancer. After a brief summary of the key methodological concepts beyond diffusion MR imaging, this article will give a review of the clinical literature, mainly focusing on current outstanding issues, followed by some innovative proposals for future improvements.
© RSNA, 2016