Diffusion-Weighted Imaging

      Diffusion imaging makes use of the variability of “Brownian motion” of water molecules in brain tissue. Brownian motion refers to the random movement of molecules. Water molecules are in constant motion, and the rate of movement or diffusion depends on the kinetic energy of the molecules and is temperature dependent. In biological tissues, diffusion is not truly random because tissue has structure. Cell membranes, vascular structures, and axon cylinders, for example, limit or restrict the amount of diffusion. Also, chemical interactions of water and macromolecules affect diffusion properties. Therefore, in the brain, water diffusion is referred to as “apparent diffusion.”

      To obtain diffusion-weighted images, a pair of strong gradient pulses are added to the pulse sequence. The first pulse dephases the spins, and the second pulse rephases the spins if no net movement occurs. If net movement of spins occurs between the gradient pulses, signal attenuation occurs. The degree of attenuation depends on the magnitude of molecular translation and diffusion weighting. The amount of diffusion weighting is determined by the strength of the diffusion gradients, the duration of the gradients, and the time between the gradient pulses.

      Diffusion imaging is performed optimally on a high-field (1.5 T) echo-planar system, but it can be accomplished with a turboSTEAM sequence on systems with conventional gradients.

      The diffusion data can be presented as signal intensity or as an image map of the apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC). Calculation of the ADC requires 2 or more acquisitions with different diffusion weightings. A low ADC corresponds to high signal intensity (restricted diffusion), and a high ADC to low signal intensity on diffusion-weighted images.

      In the setting of acute cerebral ischemia, if the cerebral blood flow is lowered to 10 ml/100gm/min, the cell membrane ion pump fails and excess sodium enters the cell, which is followed by a net movement of water from the extracellular to intracellular compartment and cytotoxic edema. Diffusion of the intracellular water molecules is restricted by the cell membranes. The restricted diffusion results in a decreased ADC and increased signal intensity on diffusion-weighted images. Severe ischemia can lower the ADC by as much as 56% of normal tissue at 6 hours. Endnote

      In patients who present with symptoms of cerebral ischemia, diffusion-weighted images are very helpful to identify any area of acute ischemia and to separate the acute infarction from old strokes and other chronic changes in the brain. Only the acute infarcts appear hyperintense on the diffusion


images. Subacute and chronic infarcts, vasogenic edema, the punctate and confluent changes of deep white matter ischemia, and dilated VR spaces are not bright. Endnote Bacterial abscesses may exhibit restricted diffusion due to thick cellular debri within the central cavity. Other diseases of the brain, such as non-bacterial infections, neoplasia, contusions, and demyelinating diseases, are not associated with cytotoxic edema, and therefore as a rule, they are not hyperintense on the diffusion images. One exception is epidermoid tumors, which have restricted diffusion due to the waxy consistency of their contents. Also, the central portions of some primary and secondary brain tumors may exhibit restriction diffusion as they outgrow their blood supply and become ischemic. Occasionally, an acute MS plaque may be mildly hyperintense with diffusion weighting.

      Lesions with prolonged T2 relaxation times are commonly mildly hyperintense on diffusion-weighted images. This phenomenon of “T2 shine-through” can easily be distinguished from true restricted diffusion on the ADC map. Only true restricted diffusion is low signal on the ADC map.  

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