Mathematical models for the diffusion magnetic resonance signal abnormality in patients with prion diseases

Matteo Figini, Daniel C. Alexander, Veronica Redaelli, Fabrizio Fasano, Marina Grisoli, Giuseppe Baselli, Pierluigi Gambetti, Fabrizio Tagliavini, Alberto Bizzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


In clinical practice signal hyperintensity in the cortex and/or in the striatum on magnetic resonance (MR) diffusion-weighted images (DWIs) is a marker of sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (sCJD). MR diagnostic accuracy is greater than 90%, but the biophysical mechanisms underpinning the signal abnormality are unknown. The aim of this prospective study is to combine an advanced DWI protocol with new mathematical models of the microstructural changes occurring in prion disease patients to investigate the cause of MR signal alterations. This underpins the later development of more sensitive and specific image-based biomarkers. DWI data with a wide a range of echo times and diffusion weightings were acquired in 15 patients with suspected diagnosis of prion disease and in 4 healthy age-matched subjects. Clinical diagnosis of sCJD was made in nine patients, genetic CJD in one, rapidly progressive encephalopathy in three, and Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker syndrome in two. Data were analysed with two bi-compartment models that represent different hypotheses about the histopathological alterations responsible for the DWI signal hyperintensity. A ROI-based analysis was performed in 13 grey matter areas located in affected and apparently unaffected regions from patients and healthy subjects. We provide for the first time non-invasive estimate of the restricted compartment radius, designed to reflect vacuole size, which is a key discriminator of sCJD subtypes. The estimated vacuole size in DWI hyperintense cortex was in the range between 3 and 10 μm that is compatible with neuropathology measurements. In DWI hyperintense grey matter of sCJD patients the two bi-compartment models outperform the classic mono-exponential ADC model. Both new models show that T2 relaxation times significantly increase, fast and slow diffusivities reduce, and the fraction of the compartment with slow/restricted diffusion increases compared to unaffected grey matter of patients and healthy subjects. Analysis of the raw DWI signal allows us to suggest the following acquisition parameters for optimized detection of CJD lesions: b = 3000 s/mm2 and TE = 103 ms. In conclusion, these results provide the first in vivo estimate of mean vacuole size, new insight on the mechanisms of DWI signal changes in prionopathies and open the way to designing an optimized acquisition protocol to improve early clinical diagnosis and subtyping of sCJD.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)142-154
Number of pages13
JournalNeuroImage: Clinical
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Biophysical models
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
  • Diffusion
  • MRI
  • Prion disease
  • Spongiform degeneration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology

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