Myelin water imaging to detect demyelination and remyelination and its validation in pathology

Brain Pathol. 2018 Sep;28(5):750-764. doi: 10.1111/bpa.12645.


Damage to myelin is a key feature of multiple sclerosis (MS) pathology. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revolutionized our ability to detect and monitor MS pathology in vivo. Proton density, T1 and T2 can provide qualitative contrast weightings that yield superb in vivo visualization of central nervous system tissue and have proved invaluable as diagnostic and patient management tools in MS. However, standard clinical MR methods are not specific to the types of tissue damage they visualize, and they cannot detect subtle abnormalities in tissue that appears otherwise normal on conventional MRIs. Myelin water imaging is an MR method that provides in vivo measurement of myelin. Histological validation work in both human brain and spinal cord tissue demonstrates a strong correlation between myelin water and staining for myelin, validating myelin water as a marker for myelin. Myelin water varies throughout the brain and spinal cord in healthy controls, and shows good intra- and inter-site reproducibility. MS plaques show variably decreased myelin water fraction, with older lesions demonstrating the greatest myelin loss. Longitudinal study of myelin water can provide insights into the dynamics of demyelination and remyelination in plaques. Normal appearing brain and spinal cord tissues show reduced myelin water, an abnormality which becomes progressively more evident over a timescale of years. Diffusely abnormal white matter, which is evident in 20%-25% of MS patients, also shows reduced myelin water both in vivo and postmortem, and appears to originate from a primary lipid abnormality with relative preservation of myelin proteins. Active research is ongoing in the quest to refine our ability to image myelin and its perturbations in MS and other disorders of the myelin sheath.

Keywords: diffusely abnormal white matter; magnetic resonance imaging; multiple sclerosis; myelin; normal appearing white matter; pathology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Demyelinating Diseases / diagnostic imaging*
  • Demyelinating Diseases / metabolism
  • Demyelinating Diseases / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Myelin Sheath / metabolism
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology*
  • Remyelination* / physiology
  • Water* / metabolism


  • Water