Magnetic Resonance in Medicine

Relaxometry of brain: Why white matter appears bright in MRI

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The remarkable success of magnetic resonance imaging of adult brain relates to the unusually large ratio of the longitudinal relaxation rates 1 / T1 of white and gray matter, ∼2:1 at physiological temperature and traditional imaging fields. Several investigators have conjectured that myelin is the source of the greater 1 / T1 of white matter without, however, suggesting details of the molecular mechanisms responsible. From measurements of the magnetic field dependence of 1 / T1 (NMRD profiles) of adult and neonatal gray and white matter at 5 and 35°C, we find a thermally activated contribution to the NMRD profile of adult white matter that is not present in the profiles of either adult gray or neonatal gray and white matter. We attribute this contribution to myelin and develop a quantitative model that accounts for the unique relaxation behavior of myelinated white matter. We find that myelin water, 15% of the total, has a relatively short T1 that arises from an unexpectedly large interaction with myelin lipid; when cast in terms of an interaction over the entire myelin bilipid‐water interface, it is sevenfold greater than the analogous protein‐water interfacial interaction. Its magnitude remains to be accounted for, but cholesterol, known to alter the relaxation rates of lipid protons, may play an important role. The contribution of myelin to 1/T1 at physiological temperatures is attributed to thermally activated transmembrane diffusion of water and, hence, more rapid mixing of axonal and the rapidly relaxing myelin water molecules. © 1990 Academic Press, Inc. Copyright © 1990 Wiley‐Liss, Inc., A Wiley Company


21 Nov 2005


Magnetic Resonance in Medicine