Diffusion MRI measures the diffusion of water molecules in biological tissues. In an isotropic medium (inside a glass of water for example) water molecules naturally move randomly according to turbulence and Brownian motion. In biological tissues however, where the Reynold’s number is low enough for flows to be laminar, the diffusion may be anisotropic. For example a molecule inside the axon of a neuron has a low probability of crossing the myelin membrane. Therefore the molecule moves principally along the axis of the neural fiber. If we know that molecules in a particular voxel diffuse principally in one direction we can make the assumption that the majority of the fibers in this area are going parallel to that direction.
The recent development of diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) enables diffusion to be measured in multiple directions and the fractional anisotropy in each direction to be calculated for each voxel. This enables researchers to make brain maps of fiber directions to examine the connectivity of different regions in the brain (using tractography) or to examine areas of neural degeneration and demyelination in diseases like Multiple Sclerosis.
Another application of diffusion MRI is diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI). Following an ischemic stroke, DWI is highly sensitive to the changes occurring in the lesion. It is speculated that increases in restriction (barriers) to water diffusion, as a result of cytotoxic edema (cellular swelling), is responsible for the increase in signal on a DWI scan. The DWI enhancement appears within 5–10 minutes of the onset of stroke symptoms (as compared with computed tomography, which often does not detect changes of acute infarct for up to 4–6 hours) and remains for up to two weeks. Coupled with imaging of cerebral perfusion, researchers can highlight regions of “perfusion/diffusion mismatch” that may indicate regions capable of salvage by reperfusion therapy.
Like many other specialized applications, this technique is usually coupled with a fast image acquisition sequence, such as echo planar imaging sequence.