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Posted: July 26th, 2023

Utilizing MRI Diffusion Tensor Imaging for Assessment of Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries

Utilizing MRI Diffusion Tensor Imaging for Assessment of Traumatic Spinal Cord Injuries

Traumatic spinal cord injuries (TSCIs) are severe medical conditions that can result in long-term disability and significant impairment in an individual’s quality of life. The accurate assessment of TSCIs is crucial for guiding treatment decisions and predicting patient outcomes. Over the years, medical imaging techniques have played a pivotal role in understanding the pathophysiology and evaluating the extent of spinal cord damage. Among these techniques, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) has emerged as a promising tool for assessing TSCIs.

Understanding MRI Diffusion Tensor Imaging:

DTI is an advanced MRI technique that provides detailed information about the microstructural integrity and connectivity of white matter tracts within the spinal cord. By examining the diffusion of water molecules along these tracts, DTI enables the visualization of axonal integrity, allowing for the assessment of damage and changes in neuronal connectivity following TSCIs.

DTI Metrics in Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury Assessment:

Several DTI metrics have been utilized in the assessment of TSCIs, each providing unique insights into the extent and nature of the injury. These metrics include fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), axial diffusivity (AD), and radial diffusivity (RD).

Fractional Anisotropy (FA):
FA is a measure of the directionality and coherence of water diffusion within tissue. Lower FA values indicate disrupted axonal integrity and reduced white matter connectivity. FA values have been found to correlate with the severity of TSCIs and can assist in predicting functional outcomes.

Mean Diffusivity (MD):
MD represents the overall magnitude of water diffusion within tissue. Elevated MD values indicate increased tissue damage and reduced cellularity. MD values have shown a correlation with the extent of spinal cord injury and can aid in determining the severity of tissue damage.

Axial Diffusivity (AD):
AD reflects water diffusion along the primary axis of white matter tracts. Reduced AD values suggest axonal damage or loss. AD values have been associated with neurological deficits and can provide valuable information regarding the localization and severity of injury.

Radial Diffusivity (RD):
RD reflects water diffusion perpendicular to the primary axis of white matter tracts. Elevated RD values indicate demyelination or disruption of myelin sheaths. RD values have been linked to axonal demyelination and can contribute to the understanding of the underlying pathology in TSCIs.

Clinical Applications of DTI in TSCI Assessment:

DTI has demonstrated its clinical utility in several aspects of TSCI assessment, including lesion characterization, prognosis prediction, and treatment planning. By providing quantitative information about white matter integrity and connectivity, DTI can aid in differentiating between different types of spinal cord lesions (e.g., contusion, compression, or transection), guiding appropriate treatment strategies.

Moreover, DTI metrics have shown promise in predicting functional recovery following TSCIs. Studies have reported significant correlations between DTI parameters and motor and sensory outcomes, providing valuable prognostic information for clinicians and patients alike. This information can help in setting realistic rehabilitation goals and optimizing patient care.

Furthermore, DTI can contribute to treatment planning by assessing the effects of interventions such as surgical decompression or spinal cord stimulation on white matter integrity and connectivity. Longitudinal DTI studies have demonstrated changes in DTI metrics following interventions, offering insights into the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions and guiding treatment modifications.

MRI diffusion tensor imaging has emerged as a valuable tool for assessing traumatic spinal cord injuries. The use of DTI metrics, including fractional anisotropy, mean diffusivity, axial diffusivity, and radial diffusivity, enables the characterization of tissue damage, prediction of functional outcomes, and optimization of treatment strategies. With further research and technological advancements, DTI has the potential to enhance our understanding of TSCIs, improve patient care, and facilitate the development of novel therapeutic approaches.


Freund P, Weiskopf N, Ashburner J, et al. MRI investigation of the sensorimotor cortex and the corticospinal tract after acute spinal cord injury: a prospective longitudinal study. Lancet Neurol. 2013;12(9):873-881. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(13)70146-7

Ellingson BM, Salamon N, Grinstead JW, et al. Diffusion tensor imaging predicts functional impairment in mild-to-moderate cervical spondylotic myelopathy. Spine J. 2014;14(12):2589-2597. doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2014.02.017

Budde MD, Janes L, Gold E, Turtzo LC, Frank JA. The contribution of gliosis to diffusion tensor anisotropy and tractography following traumatic brain injury: validation in the rat using Fourier analysis of stained tissue sections. Brain. 2011;134(Pt 8):2248-2260. doi:10.1093/brain/awr161

Martin AR, Aleksanderek I, Cohen-Adad J, et al. Translating state-of-the-art spinal cord MRI techniques to clinical use: a systematic review of clinical studies utilizing DTI, MT, MWF, MRS, and fMRI. Neuroimage Clin. 2016;10:192-238. doi:10.1016/j.nicl.2015.11.018

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