Formalin tissue fixation biases myelin-sensitive MRI

Magn Reson Med. 2019 Oct;82(4):1504-1517. doi: 10.1002/mrm.27821. Epub 2019 May 24.


Purpose: Chemical fixatives such as formalin form cross-links between proteins and affect the relaxation times and diffusion properties of tissue. These fixation-induced changes likely also affect myelin density measurements produced by quantitative magnetization transfer and myelin water imaging. In this work, we evaluate these myelin-sensitive MRI methods for fixation-induced biases.

Methods: We perform quantitative magnetization transfer, myelin water imaging, and deuterium oxide-exchanged zero TE imaging on unfixed human spinal cord tissue at 9.4 Tesla and repeat these measurements after 1 day and 31 days of formalin fixation.

Results: The quantitative magnetization-transfer bound pool fraction increased by 30.7% ± 21.1% after 1 day of fixation and by 42.6% ± 33.9% after 31 days of fixation. Myelin water fraction increased by 39.7% ± 15.5% and 37.0% ± 15.9% at these same time points, and mean T2 of the myelin water pool nearly doubled. Reference-normalized deuterium oxide-exchanged zero TE signal intensity increased by 8.17% ± 6.03% after 31 days of fixation but did not change significantly after 1 day of fixation. After fixation, specimen cross-sectional area decreased by approximately 5%; after correction for shrinkage, changes in deuterium oxide-exchanged zero TE intensity were nearly eliminated.

Conclusion: Bound pool fraction and myelin water fraction are significantly increased by formalin fixation, whereas deuterium oxide-exchanged zero TE intensity is minimally affected. Changes in quantitative magnetization transfer and myelin water imaging may be due in part to delamination and formation of vacuoles in the myelin sheath. Deuterium oxide-exchanged signal intensity may be altered by fixation-induced changes in myelin lipid solid-state 1 H T1 . We urge caution in the comparison of these measurements across subjects or specimens in different states, especially unfixed versus fixed tissue.

Keywords: MRI; formalin fixation; myelin; myelin water imaging (MWI); quantitative magnetization transfer (qMT); zero TE (ZTE) imaging.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Formaldehyde / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Myelin Sheath / chemistry*
  • Spinal Cord / chemistry
  • Spinal Cord / diagnostic imaging*
  • Tissue Fixation / methods*


  • Formaldehyde