Imaging white matter in human brainstem

Anastasia Ford, Luis Colon-Perez, William T. Triplett, Joseph M. Gullett, Thomas H. Mareci, David B. FitzGerald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


The human brainstem is critical for the control of many life-sustaining functions, such as consciousness, respiration, sleep, and transfer of sensory and motor information between the brain and the spinal cord. Most of our knowledge about structure and organization of white and gray matter within the brainstem is derived from ex vivo dissection and histology studies. However, these methods cannot be applied to study structural architecture in live human participants. Tractography from diffusion-weighted MRI may provide valuable insights about white matter organization within the brainstem in vivo. However, this method presents technical challenges in vivo due to susceptibility artifacts, functionally dense anatomy, as well as pulsatile and respiratory motion. To investigate the limits of MR tractography, we present results from high angular resolution diffusion imaging (HARDI) of an intact excised human brainstem performed at 11.1T using isotropic resolution of 0.333, 1, and 2 mm, with the latter reflecting resolution currently used clinically. At the highest resolution, the dense fiber architecture of the brainstem is evident, but the definition of structures degrades as resolution decreases. In particular, the inferred corticopontine/corticospinal tracts (CPT/CST), superior (SCP) and middle cerebellar peduncle (MCP), and medial lemniscus (ML) pathways are clearly discernable and follow known anatomical trajectories at the highest spatial resolution. At lower resolutions, the CST/CPT, SCP, and MCP pathways are artificially enlarged due to inclusion of collinear and crossing fibers not inherent to these three pathways. The inferred ML pathways appear smaller at lower resolutions, indicating insufficient spatial information to successfully resolve smaller fiber pathways. Our results suggest that white matter tractography maps derived from the excised brainstem can be used to guide the study of the brainstem architecture using diffusion MRI in vivo.

Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberJUL
StatePublished - 8 Jul 2013


  • Brainstem
  • Diffusion-weighted imaging
  • High-resolution MRI
  • Tractography
  • White matter


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