The human brainstem plays a central role in connecting the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the spinal cord to one another, hosting relay nuclei for afferent and efferent signaling, and providing source nuclei for several neuromodulatory systems that impact central nervous system function. While the investigation of the brainstem with functional or structural magnetic resonance imaging has been hampered for years due to this brain structure's physiological and anatomical characteristics, the field has seen significant advances in recent years thanks to the broader adoption of ultrahigh-field (UHF) MRI scanning. In the present review, we focus on the advantages offered by UHF in the context of brainstem imaging, as well as the challenges posed by the investigation of this complex brain structure in terms of data acquisition and analysis. We also illustrate how UHF MRI can shed new light on the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology underlying different brainstem-based circuitries, such as the central autonomic network and neurotransmitter/neuromodulator systems, discuss existing and foreseeable clinical applications to better understand diseases such as chronic pain and Parkinson's disease, and explore promising future directions for further improvements in brainstem imaging using UHF MRI techniques.
Keywords: Medulla; Mesencephalon; Midbrain; Nociception; Pons.
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