Neurobiological underpinnings of rapid white matter plasticity during intensive reading instruction

Neuroimage. 2021 Nov;243:118453. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.118453. Epub 2021 Aug 4.


Diffusion MRI is a powerful tool for imaging brain structure, but it is challenging to discern the biological underpinnings of plasticity inferred from these and other non-invasive MR measurements. Biophysical modeling of the diffusion signal aims to render a more biologically rich image of tissue microstructure, but the application of these models comes with important caveats. A separate approach for gaining biological specificity has been to seek converging evidence from multi-modal datasets. Here we use metrics derived from diffusion kurtosis imaging (DKI) and the white matter tract integrity (WMTI) model along with quantitative MRI measurements of T1 relaxation to characterize changes throughout the white matter during an 8-week, intensive reading intervention (160 total hours of instruction). Behavioral measures, multi-shell diffusion MRI data, and quantitative T1 data were collected at regular intervals during the intervention in a group of 33 children with reading difficulties (7-12 years old), and over the same period in an age-matched non-intervention control group. Throughout the white matter, mean 'extra-axonal' diffusivity was inversely related to intervention time. In contrast, model estimated axonal water fraction (AWF), overall diffusion kurtosis, and T1 relaxation time showed no significant change over the intervention period. Both diffusion and quantitative T1 based metrics were correlated with pre-intervention reading performance, albeit with distinct anatomical distributions. These results are consistent with the view that rapid changes in diffusion properties reflect phenomena other than widespread changes in myelin density. We discuss this result in light of recent work highlighting non-axonal factors in experience-dependent plasticity and learning.

Keywords: Diffusion MRI; Plasticity; Quantitative MRI; Reading; White matter modeling.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging / methods*
  • Dyslexia, Acquired / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Myelin Sheath
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Reading*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging*