Diffusion tensor tractography of brainstem fibers and its application in pain

PLoS One. 2020 Feb 18;15(2):e0213952. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0213952. eCollection 2020.


Evaluation of brainstem pathways with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and tractography may provide insights into pathophysiologies associated with dysfunction of key brainstem circuits. However, identification of these tracts has been elusive, with relatively few in vivo human studies to date. In this paper we proposed an automated approach for reconstructing nine brainstem fiber trajectories of pathways that might be involved in pain modulation. We first performed native-space manual tractography of these fiber tracts in a small normative cohort of participants and confirmed the anatomical precision of the results using existing anatomical literature. Second, region-of-interest pairs were manually defined at each extracted fiber's termini and nonlinearly warped to a standard anatomical brain template to create an atlas of the region-of-interest pairs. The resulting atlas was then transformed non-linearly into the native space of 17 veteran patients' brains for automated brainstem tractography. Lastly, we assessed the relationships between the integrity levels of the obtained fiber bundles and pain severity levels. Fractional anisotropy (FA) measures derived using automated tractography reflected the respective tracts' FA levels obtained via manual tractography. A significant inverse relationship between FA and pain levels was detected within the automatically derived dorsal and medial longitudinal fasciculi of the brainstem. This study demonstrates the feasibility of DTI in exploring brainstem circuitries involved in pain processing. In this context, the described automated approach is a viable alternative to the time-consuming manual tractography. The physiological and functional relevance of the measures derived from automated tractography is evidenced by their relationships with individual pain severities.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Stem / diagnostic imaging*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging / methods*
  • Female
  • Gray Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Pain / diagnostic imaging*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging

Grant support

This research is supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of Academic Affiliations, California War Related Illness and Injury Study Center (WRIISC-CA) fellowship program. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.