We applied diffusion tensor tractography (DTT), a recently developed MRI technique that reveals the microstructures of tissues based on its ability to monitor the random movements of water molecules, to the visualization of peripheral nerves after injury. The rat sciatic nerve was subjected to contusive injury, and the data obtained from diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) were used to determine the tracks of nerve fibers (DTT). The DTT images obtained using the fractional anisotropy (FA) threshold value of 0.4 clearly revealed the recovery process of the contused nerves. Immediately after the injury, fiber tracking from the designated proximal site could not be continued beyond the lesion epicenter, but the intensity improved thereafter, returning to its pre-injury level by 3 weeks later. We compared the FA value, a parameter computed from the DTT data, with the results of histological and functional examinations of the injured nerves, during recovery. The FA values of the peripheral nerves were more strongly correlated with axon-related (axon density and diameter) than with myelin-related (myelin density and thickness) parameters, supporting the theories that axonal membranes play a major role in anisotropic water diffusion and that myelination can modulate the degree of anisotropy. Moreover, restoration of the FA value at the lesion epicenter was strongly correlated with parameters of motor and sensory functional recovery. These correlations of the FA values with both the histological and functional changes demonstrate the potential usefulness of DTT for evaluating clinical events associated with Wallerian degeneration and the regeneration of peripheral nerves.
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