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Investigating the microstructural properties of normal-appearing white matter (NAWM) preceding conversion to white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) in stroke survivors

Published: 15 May 2021
NeuroImage , Volume 232; doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2021.117839

Abstract: Using advanced diffusion MRI, we aimed to assess the microstructural properties of normal-appearing white matter (NAWM) preceding conversion to white matter hyperintensities (WMHs) using 3-tissue diffusion signal compositions in ischemic stroke. Data were obtained from the Cognition and Neocortical Volume After Stroke (CANVAS) study. Diffusion-weighted MR and high-resolution structural brain images were acquired 3- (baseline) and 12-months (follow-up) post-stroke. WMHs were automatically segmented and longitudinal assessment at 12-months was used to retrospectively delineate NAWM voxels at baseline converting to WMHs. NAWM voxels converting to WMHs were further dichotomized into either: “growing” WMHs if NAWM adhered to existing WMH voxels, or “isolated de-novo" WMHs if NAWM was unconnected to WMH voxels identified at baseline. Microstructural properties were assessed using 3-tissue diffusion signal compositions consisting of white matter-like (WM-like: TW), gray matter-like (GM-like: TG), and cerebrospinal fluid-like (CSF-like: TC) signal fractions. Our findings showed that NAWM converting to WMHs already exhibited similar changes in tissue compositions at baseline to WMHs with lower TW and increased TC (fluid-like, i.e. free-water) and TG compared to persistent NAWM. We also found that microstructural properties of persistent NAWM were related to overall WMH burden with greater free-water content in patients with high WMH load. These findings suggest that NAWM preceding conversion to WMHs are accompanied by greater fluid-like properties indicating increased tissue water content. Increased GM-like properties may indicate a more isotropic microstructure of tissue reflecting a degree of hindered diffusion in NAWM regions vulnerable to WMH development. These results support the usefulness of microstructural compositions as a sensitive marker of NAWM vulnerability to WMH pathogenesis.
Keywords: 3-tissue / Diffusion MRI / Compositional analysis / White matter hyperintensities / Normal-appearing white matter

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