Section: Research Program

Computational diffusion MRI

Diffusion MRI (dMRI) provides a non-invasive way of estimating in-vivo CNS fiber structures using the average random thermal movement (diffusion) of water molecules as a probe. It's a recent field of research with a history of roughly three decades. It was introduced in the mid 80's by Le Bihan et al  [71], Merboldt et al  [77] and Taylor et al  [88]. As of today, it is the unique non-invasive technique capable of describing the neural connectivity in vivo by quantifying the anisotropic diffusion of water molecules in biological tissues.

Diffusion Tensor Imaging & High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging

In dMRI, the acquisition and reconstruction of the diffusion signal allows for the reconstruction of the water molecules displacement probability, known as the Ensemble Average Propagator (EAP) [87], [53]. Historically, the first model in dMRI is the 2nd order diffusion tensor (DTI)   [51], [50] which assumes the EAP to be Gaussian centered at the origin. DTI (Diffusion Tensor Imaging) has now proved to be extremely useful to study the normal and pathological human brain  [72], [62]. It has led to many applications in clinical diagnosis of neurological diseases and disorder, neurosciences applications in assessing connectivity of different brain regions, and more recently, therapeutic applications, primarily in neurosurgical planning. An important and very successful application of diffusion MRI has been brain ischemia, following the discovery that water diffusion drops immediately after the onset of an ischemic event, when brain cells undergo swelling through cytotoxic edema.

The increasing clinical importance of diffusion imaging has driven our interest to develop new processing tools for Diffusion Tensor MRI. Because of the complexity of the data, this imaging modality raises a large amount of mathematical and computational challenges. We have therefore developed original and efficient algorithms relying on Riemannian geometry, differential geometry, partial differential equations and front propagation techniques to correctly and efficiently estimate, regularize, segment and process Diffusion Tensor MRI (DT-MRI) (see  [74] and  [73]).

In DTI, the Gaussian assumption over-simplifies the diffusion of water molecules. While it is adequate for voxels in which there is only a single fiber orientation (or none), it breaks for voxels in which there are more complex internal structures and limitates the ability of the DTI to describe complex, singular and intricate fiber configurations (U-shape, kissing or crossing fibers). To overcome this limitation, so-called Diffusion Spectrum Imaging (DSI) [91] and High Angular Resolution Diffusion Imaging (HARDI) methods such as Q-ball imaging  [89] and other multi-tensors and compartment models  [84], [86], [44], [43], [80] were developed to resolve the orientationnality of more complicated fiber bundle configurations.

Q-Ball imaging (QBI) has been proven very successful in resolving multiple intravoxel fiber orientations in MR images, thanks to its ability to reconstruct the Orientation Distribution Function (ODF, the probability of diffusion in a given direction). These tools play a central role in our work related to the development of a robust and linear spherical harmonic estimation of the HARDI signal and to our development of a regularized, fast and robust analytical QBI solution that outperforms the state-of-the-art ODF numerical technique developed by Tuch   [89]. Those contributions are fundamental and have already started to impact on the Diffusion MRI, HARDI and Q-Ball Imaging community  [61]. They are at the core of our probabilistic and deterministic tractography algorithms devised to best exploit the full distribution of the fiber ODF (see  [58][3] and  [59][4]).

Beyond DTI with high order tensors

High Order Tensors (HOT) models to estimate the diffusion function while overcoming the shortcomings of the 2nd order tensor model have also been recently proposed such as the Generalized Diffusion Tensor Imaging (G-DTI) model developed by Ozarslan et al  [95], [96] or 4th order Tensor Model  [49]. For more details, we refer the reader to our articles in  [64], [84] where we review HOT models and to our articles in  [73], co-authored with some of our close collaborators, where we review recent mathematical models and computational methods for the processing of Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Images, including state-of-the-art reconstruction of diffusion models, cerebral white matter connectivity analysis, and segmentation techniques. Recently, we started to work on Diffusion Kurtosis Imaging (DKI), of great interest for the company Olea Medical (http://www.olea-medical.com/). Indeed, DKI is fastly gaining popularity in the domain for characterizing the diffusion propagator or EAP by its deviation from Gaussianity. Hence it is an important clinical tool for characterizing the white-matter's integrity with biomarkers derived from the 3D 4th order kurtosis tensor (KT)  [67].

All these powerful techniques are of utmost importance to acquire a better understanding of the CNS mechanisms and have helped to efficiently tackle and solve a number of important and challenging problems [43], [44]. They have also opened up a landscape of extremely exciting research fields for medicine and neuroscience. Hence, due to the complexity of the CNS data and as the magnetic field strength of scanners increases, as the strength and speed of gradients increase and as new acquisition techniques appear [2], these imaging modalities raise a large amount of mathematical and computational challenges at the core of the research we develop at Athena   [66], [84].

Improving dMRI acquisitions

One of the most important challenges in diffusion imaging is to improve acquisition schemes and analyse approaches to optimally acquire and accurately represent diffusion profiles in a clinically feasible scanning time. Indeed, a very important and open problem in Diffusion MRI is related to the fact that HARDI scans generally require many times more diffusion gradient than traditional diffusion MRI scan times. This comes at the price of longer scans, which can be problematic for children and people with certain diseases. Patients are usually unable to tolerate long scans and excessive motion of the patient during the acquisition process can force a scan to be aborted or produce useless diffusion MRI images. Recently, we have developed novel methods for the acquisition and the processing of diffusion magnetic resonance images, to efficiently provide, with just few measurements, new insights into the structure and anatomy of the brain white matter in vivo.

First, we contributed developing real-time reconstruction algorithm based on the Kalman filter  [57]. Then, and more recently, we started to explore the utility of Compressive Sensing methods to enable faster acquisition of dMRI data by reducing the number of measurements, while maintaining a high quality for the results. Compressed Sensing (CS) is a recent technique which has been proved to accurately reconstruct sparse signals from undersampled measurements acquired below the Shannon-Nyquist rate  [78].

We have contributed to the reconstruction of the diffusion signal and its important features as the orientation distribution function and the ensemble average propagator, with a special focus on clinical setting in particular for single and multiple Q-shell experiments. Compressive sensing as well as the parametric reconstruction of the diffusion signal in a continuous basis of functions such as the Spherical Polar Fourier basis, have been proved through our recent contributions to be very useful for deriving simple and analytical closed formulae for many important dMRI features, which can be estimated via a reduced number of measurements  [78], [54], [56].

We have also contributed to design optimal acquisition schemes for single and multiple Q-shell experiments. In particular, the method proposed in [2] helps generate sampling schemes with optimal angular coverage for multi-shell acquisitions. The cost function we proposed is an extension of the electrostatic repulsion to multi-shell and can be used to create acquisition schemes with incremental angular distribution, compatible with prematurely stopped scans. Compared to more commonly used radial sampling, our method improves the angular resolution, as well as fiber crossing discrimination. The optimal sampling schemes, freely available for download(http://www.emmanuelcaruyer.com/), have been selected for use in the HCP (Human Connectome Project)(http://humanconnectome.org/documentation/Q1/imaging-protocols.html).

We think that such kind of contributions open new perspectives for dMRI applications including, for example, tractography where the improved characterization of the fiber orientations is likely to greatly and quickly help tracking through regions with and/or without crossing fibers  [65].

dMRI modelling, tissue microstructures features recovery & applications

The dMRI signal is highly complex, hence, the mathematical tools required for processing it have to be commensurate in their complexity. Overall, these last twenty years have seen an explosion of intensive scientific research which has vastly improved and literally changed the face of dMRI. In terms of dMRI models, two trends are clearly visible today: the parametric approaches which attempt to build models of the tissue to explain the signal based on model-parameters such as CHARMED [45], AxCaliber [46] and NODDI [92] to cite but a few, and the non-parametric approaches, which attempt to describe the signal in useful but generic functional bases such as the Spherical Polar Fourier (SPF) basis [48], [47], the Solid Harmonic (SoH) basis [60], the Simple Harmonic Oscillator based Reconstruction and Estimation (SHORE) basis [93] and more recent Mean Apparent Propagator or MAP-MRI basis  [94].

We propose to investigate the feasibility of using our new models and methods to measure extremely important biological tissue microstructure quantities such as axonal radius and density in white matter. These parameters could indeed provide new insight to better understand the brain's architecture and more importantly could also provide new imaging bio-markers to characterize certain neurodegenerative diseases. This challenging scientific problem, when solved, will lead to direct measurements of important microstructural features that will be integrated in our analysis to provide much greater insight into disease mechanisms, recovery and development. These new microstructural parameters will open the road to go far beyond the limitations of the more simple bio-markers derived from DTI that are clinically used to this date – such as MD (Mean Diffusivity) and FA (Fractional Anisotropy) which are known to be extremely sensitive to confounding factors such as partial volume and axonal dispersion, non-specific and not able to capture any subtle effects that might be early indicators of diseases [5].

Towards microstructural based tractography

In order to go far beyond traditional fiber-tracking techniques, we believe that first order information, i.e. fiber orientations, has to be superseeded by second and third order information, such as microstructure details, to improve tractography. However, many of these higher order information methods are relatively new or unexplored and tractography algorithms based on these high order based methods have to be conceived and designed. In this aim, we propose to work with multiple-shells to reconstruct the Ensemble Average Propagator (EAP), which represents the whole 3D diffusion process and use the possibility it offers to deduce valuable insights on the microstructural properties of the white matter. Indeed, from a reconstructed EAP one can compute the angular features of the diffusion in an diffusion Orientation Distribution Function (ODF), providing insight in axon orientation, calculate properties of the entire diffusion in a voxel such as the Mean Squared Diffusivity (MSD) and Return-To-Origin Probability (RTOP), or come forth with bio-markers detailing diffusion along a particular white matter bundle direction such as the Return-to-Axis or Return-to-Plane Probability (RTAP or RTPP). This opens the way to a ground-breaking computational and unified framework for tractography based on EAP and microstructure features [6]. Using additional a priori anatomical and/or functional information, we could also constrain the tractography algorithm to start and terminate the streamlines only at valid processing areas of the brain.

This development of a computational and unified framework for tractography, based on EAP, microstructure and a priori anatomical and/or functional features, will open new perspectives in tractography, paving the way to a new generation of realistic and biologically plausible algorithms able to deal with intricate configurations of white matter fibers and to provide an exquisite and intrinsic brain connectivity quantification.

Going beyond the state-of-the-art dMRI

Overall, these last twenty years have seen an explosion of intensive scientific research which has vastly improved and literally changed the face of dMRI.

However, although great improvements have been made, major improvements are still required primarily to optimally acquire dMRI data, better understand the biophysics of the signal formation, recover invariant and intrinsic microstructure features, identify bio-physically important bio-markers and improve tractography. For short, there

Therefore, there is still considerable room for improvement when it comes to the concepts and tools able to efficiently acquire, process and analyze the complex structure of dMRI data. Develop ground-breaking tools and models for dMRI is one of the major objective we would like to achieve in order to take dMRI from the benchside to the bedside and lead to a decisive advance and breakthrough in this field.