Magnetic Resonance of Myelin Water: An in vivo Marker for Myelin

Brain Plast. 2016 Dec 21;2(1):71-91. doi: 10.3233/BPL-160033.


Myelin is critical for healthy brain function. An accurate in vivo measure of myelin content has important implications for understanding brain plasticity and neurodegenerative diseases. Myelin water imaging is a magnetic resonance imaging method which can be used to visualize myelination in the brain and spinal cord in vivo. This review presents an overview of myelin water imaging data acquisition and analysis, post-mortem validation work, findings in both animal and human studies and a brief discussion about other MR techniques purported to provide in vivo myelin content. Multi-echo T2 relaxation approaches continue to undergo development and whole-brain imaging time now takes less than 10 minutes; the standard analysis method for this type of data acquisition is a non-negative least squares approach. Alternate methods including the multi-flip angle gradient echo mcDESPOT are also being used for myelin water imaging. Histological validation studies in animal and human brain and spinal cord tissue demonstrate high specificity of myelin water imaging for myelin. Potential confounding factors for in vivo myelin water fraction measurement include the presence of myelin debris and magnetization exchange processes. Myelin water imaging has successfully been used to study animal models of injury, applied in healthy human controls and can be used to assess damage and injury in conditions such as multiple sclerosis, neuromyelitis optica, schizophrenia, phenylketonuria, neurofibromatosis, niemann pick's disease, stroke and concussion. Other quantitative magnetic resonance approaches that are sensitive to, but not specific for, myelin exist including magnetization transfer, diffusion tensor imaging and T1 weighted imaging.

Keywords: Myelin; brain; demyelination; myelin water; white matter.

Publication types

  • Review