Education, tips and tricks to help you conduct better fMRI experiments.
Sure, you can try to fix it during data processing, but you're usually better off fixing the acquisition!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Using multi-band (aka SMS) EPI on on low-dimensional array coils

The CMRR's release notes for their MB-EPI sequence recommend using the 32-channel head coil for multiband EPI, and they caution against using the 12-channel head coil:

"The 32-channel Head coil is highly recommended for 3T. The 12-channel Head Matrix is not recommended, but it can be used for acceptable image quality at low acceleration factors."

But what does "low acceleration" mean in practice? And what if your only choice is a 12-channel coil? Following a couple of inquiries from colleagues, I decided to find out where the limits might be.

Let's start by looking at the RF coil layout, and review why the 12-channel coil is considered an inferior choice. Is it simply fewer independent channels, or something else? The figure below shows the layout of the 12-ch and 32-ch coils offered by Siemens:

From Kaza, Klose & Lotze (2011).

In most cases, the EPI slice direction will be transverse or transverse oblique (e.g. along AC-PC), meaning that we are slicing along the long axis of the magnet (magnet Z axis) and along the front-to-back dimension of the head coil. Along the long axis of the 12-ch coil there is almost no variation in the X-Y plane. At the very back of the coil the loops start to curve towards a point of convergence, but still there is no distinction in any direction in the X-Y plane. Compare that situation to the 32-ch coil. It has five distinct planes of coils along the Z axis. With the 32-ch coil, then, we can expect the hardware - the layout of the loops - to provide a good basis for separating simultaneously acquired axial slices, whereas there is no such distinct spatial information available from the coil elements in the 12-channel coil. In the 12-channel coil, every loop detects a significant and nearly equal fraction of any given slice along Z.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Arterial carbon dioxide as an endogenous "contrast agent" for blood flow imaging

I nearly called this post Low Frequency Oscillations - part III since it closely follows the subject material I covered in the last two posts. But this is a slight tangent. Following the maxim "One scientist's noise is another scientist's signal," in this post I want to look at the utility of systemic LFO to map blood flow dynamics, an idea that was suggested in 2013 by Lv et al. based on the earlier work from Tong & Frederick that I reviewed last post. There is also at least one review of this topic, from 2017.

Let me first recap the last post. There is sufficient evidence, supported by multiple direct and indirect lines of inquiry, to suggest a blood-borne contrast mechanism that produces a prominent fluctuation at around 0.1 Hz in resting-state fMRI data. (Here, I assume a standard T₂*-weighted EPI acquisition for the resting-state fMRI data.) Furthermore, the same fluctuation can be found anywhere in the body. That is, the fluctuation is truly systemic. The best explanation to date is that non-stationary arterial CO₂ concentration, brought about by variations in breathing rate and/or depth, produces changes in arterial tone by virtue of the sensitivity of smooth muscle walls to the CO₂ dissolved in arterial blood. I shall assume such a mechanism throughout this post, while noting that the actual mechanism is less critical here than whether there is some utility to be exploited.

In the title I put "contrast agent" in quotes. That's because the CO₂ isn't the actual contrast agent, but a modulator of contrast changes. When the smooth muscle walls of an artery sense a changing CO₂ concentration, they either expand or contract locally, modulating the blood flow through that vessel. In the brain, a change in a blood vessel's diameter causes a concomitant change cerebral blood volume (CBV), hence cerebral blood flow (CBF). There may be a local change in magnetic susceptibility corresponding to the altered CBV in the arteries and capillaries. But the altered CBF will definitely produce the well-known change in magnetic susceptibility in and around the venous blood that can be detected downstream of the tissue, i.e. the standard BOLD effect. The actual contrast we detect is by virtue of changes in T₂* (for gradient echo EPI), plus the possibility of some flow weighting of the arterial blood depending on the combination of flip angle (FA) and repetition time (TR) being used. As a shorthand, however, I shall refer to arterial CO₂ as the endogenous contrast agent because whenever an artery senses a change in CO₂ concentration, there will be a concomitant change in vessel tone, and we will see a cascade of signal changes arising from it. (See Note 1 for some fun with acronyms!)

Time shift analysis

Most published studies attempting to exploit systemic LFO have used fixed time shifts, or lags, in their analysis. You just need a few minutes' worth of BOLD fMRI data, usually resting state (task-free). The analysis is then conceptually straightforward:
  1. Define a reference, or "seed," time course;
  2. Perform cross correlations between the "seed" and the time course of each voxel, using a set of time shifts that typically spans a range of 15-20 seconds (based on the expected brain hemodynamics);
  3. Determine for each voxel which time shift gives the largest cross correlation value, and plot that value (the delay, in seconds) to produce a lag map.

There are experimental variables, naturally. The duration of the BOLD time series varies, but most studies to date have used the 5-8 min acquisition that's common for resting-state connectivity. Some studies filter the data before starting the analysis. Different studies also tend to choose different seeds. There are pros and cons for each seed category that I assess in the next section. Time shifts are usually increments of TR, e.g. the lag range might be over +/- 5 TRs for a common TR of 2 sec. And, in producing the final lag maps, some studies apply acceptance criteria to reject low correlations.

Let's look at an example time shift analysis, from Siegel et al. (2016). The raw data were filtered with a pass-band of 0.009 - 0.09 Hz. For cross correlations, they used as their seed time course the global gray matter (GM) signal. Cross correlations were computed voxel-by-voxel for nine delays of TR = 2 sec increments, covering +/- 8 sec, followed by interpolation over the lag range. The time shift corresponding to the maximum cross correlation was assigned that voxel's lag value in the final map, as shown here:

Fig. 1 from Siegel et al. (2016).

Thursday, June 14, 2018

FMRI data modulators 3: Low frequency oscillations - part II

In the previous post, I laid out four broad categories of low frequency oscillation (LFO) that arise in fMRI data. The first three categories are mentioned quite often in fMRI literature, with aliasing of respiratory and cardiac pulsations being the best known of all “physiological noise” components. In this post, I am going to dig into the fourth category: blood-borne agents. Specifically, I want to review the evidence and investigate the possibility that non-stationary arterial CO₂ might be producing an LFO that is at least as important as aliased mechanical effects. At first blush, this is unsurprising. We all claim to know CO₂ is a potent vasodilator, so we can think of CO₂ in blood as a sort of changing contrast agent that perturbs the arterial diameter – producing changes in cerebral blood volume - whenever the arterial CO₂ concentration departs from steady state.

Why would arterial CO₂ fluctuate? Why isn't it constant? Simply put, we don't breathe perfectly uniformly. If you monitor your own breathing you’ll notice all sorts of pauses and changes of pace. Much of it depends on what you’re doing or thinking about, which of course gets right to the heart of the potential for fluctuations in CO to be a confound for fMRI.

I had hoped to begin this post with a review of CO transport in the blood, and from there to relay what I’ve found on the biochemical mechanism(s) underlying vasodilation caused by CO. But after several weeks of searching and background reading, I still don’t have sufficient understanding of the biochemistry to give you a concise overview. The CO transport mechanisms are quite well understood, it seems. But how a change in one or more components of CO in arterial blood produces changes in the arterial smooth muscle wall, that is a more complicated story. For the purposes of this post, then, we shall have to content ourselves with the idea that CO is, indeed, a potent vasodilator. The detailed biochemistry will have to wait for a later post. For those of you who simply can’t wait, I suggest you read the review articles given in Note 1. They aren’t aimed at an fMRI audience, so unless you are a biochemist or physiologist, you may not get the sort of intuitive understanding that I have been searching for.

First indications that arterial CO might be an important source of LFO in fMRI data

The effects of respiration on BOLD data were recognized in the mid-nineties as an important consideration for fMRI experiments. By the late nineties, several groups began to investigate the effects of intentionally held breaths on BOLD signal dynamics, using as their basis the phenomenon of arterial CO as a vasodilator. Other groups (e.g. Mitra et al., 1997) observed low frequency fluctuations in BOLD data that suggested a vasomotor origin, or found fluctuations in cerebral blood flow (CBF) measured by non-MR means (e.g. Obrig et al., 2000). It wasn’t until 2004, however, that Wise et al. showed definitively how slow variations of arterial CO concentration were related to, and likely driving, low frequency variations in BOLD time series data:
PETCO-related BOLD signal fluctuations showed regional differences across the grey matter, suggesting variability of the responsiveness to carbon dioxide at rest.”
“Significant PETCO-correlated fluctuations in [middle cerebral artery] MCA blood velocity were observed with a lag of 6.3 +/- 1.2 s (mean +/- standard error) with respect to PETCO changes.”

The spatial-temporal dynamics observed by Wise et al. certainly fit a blood-borne agent. That is, we should expect lag variations dependent on the total arterial distance between the heart and the tissue of interest; in their case, the MCA.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

FMRI data modulators 3: Low frequency oscillations - part I

Low frequency oscillations (LFOs) may be one of the the most important sources of signal variance for resting-state fMRI. Consider this quote from a recent paper by Tong & Frederick:
"we found that the effects of pLFOs [physiological LFOs] dominated many prominent ICA components, which suggests that, contrary to the popular belief that aliased cardiac and respiration signals are the main physiological noise source in BOLD fMRI, pLFOs may be the most influential physiological signals. Understanding and measuring these pLFOs are important for denoising and accurately modeling BOLD signals."

If true, it's strange that LFOs aren't higher on many lists of problems in fMRI. They seem to be an afterthought, if thought about at all. I suspect that nomenclature may be partly responsible for much of the oversight. A lot of different processes end up in the bucket labeled "LFO." The term is used differently in different contexts, with the context most often defined by the methodology under consideration. Folks using laser Doppler flow cytometry may be referring to something quite different than fMRI folks. Or not. Which rather makes my point. In this post I shall try to sort the contents of the LFO bucket, and in at least one later post, I shall dig more deeply into "systemic LFOs." These are the LFOs having truly physiological origin; where the adjective is used according to its physiological definition:

The description I pulled up from the Google dictionary tells us the essential nature of systemic LFOs: at least some of them are likely to involve the blood gases. And I'll give you a clue to keep you interested. It's the CO component that may end up being most relevant to us.

What exactly do we mean by low frequency oscillations anyway?

"Low frequency" generally refers to fluctuations in fMRI signal that arise, apparently spontaneously, with a frequency of around 0.1 Hz. The precise range of frequencies isn't of critical importance for this post, but it's common to find a bandwidth of 0.05 - 0.15 Hz under discussion in the LFO literature. I'll just say ~ 0.1 Hz and move on. I added "apparently spontaneously" as a caveat because some of mechanisms aren't all that spontaneous, it turns out.

For the purposes of this post we're talking about variations in BOLD signal intensity in a time series with a variation of ~ 0.1 Hz. There may be other brain processes that oscillate at low frequencies, such as electrical activity, but here I am specifically concerned with processes that can leave an imprint on a BOLD-contrasted time series. Thus, neurovascular coupling resulting in LFO is relevant, whereas low frequency brain electrical activity per se is not, because the associated magnetic fields (in the nanotesla range, implied from MEG) are far too small to matter.

Is LFO the lowest modulation of interest? No. There are physiological perturbations that arise at even lower frequencies. These are often termed very low frequency oscillations (VLFOs) because, well, we scientists are an imaginative bunch. These VLFOs generally happen below about 0.05 Hz. The biological processes that fluctuate once or twice a minute may well be related to the LFOs that are the focus here, but I am going to leave them for another day.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Monitoring gradient cable temperature

While the gradient set is water-cooled, the gradient cables and gradient filters still rely upon air cooling in many scanner suites, such as mine. In the case of the gradient filters, the filter box on my Siemens Trio came with an opaque cover, which we replaced with clear plastic to allow easy inspection and temperature monitoring with an infrared (IR) thermometer:

The gradient filter box in the wall behind my Siemens Trio magnet. It's up at ceiling height, in the lowest possible stray magnetic field. The clear plastic cover is custom. The standard box is opaque white.

Siemens now has a smoke detector inside the gradient filter box, after at least one instance of the gradient filters disintegrating with excess heat. Still, a clear inspection panel is a handy thing to have.

The gradient cables between the filter box and the back of the magnet can also decay with use. If this happens, the load experienced by the gradient amplifier changes and this can affect gradient control fidelity. (More on this below.) The cables can be damaged by excess heat, and this damage leads to higher resistance which itself produces more heating. A classic feedback loop!

The Fluke 561 IR thermometer and a K type thermocouple, purchased separately.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


WARNING: this post contains sarcasm and some swearing.
(But only where absolutely necessary.)

COBIDAcq, pronounced "Koby-dack," is the Committee on Best Practice in Data Acquisition. It is based on the similarly dodgy acronym, COBIDAS: Committee on Best Practice in Data Analysis and Sharing. I suppose COBPIDAAS sounds like a medical procedure and CBPDAS is unpronounceable, so COBIDAS here we are.

Unlike COBIDAS, however, the COBIDAcq doesn't yet exist. Do we need it? The purpose of this post is to wheel out the idea and invite debate on the way we do business.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

FMRI data modulators 2: Blood pressure

If you conduct fMRI experiments then you'll have at least a basic understanding of the cascade of events that we term neurovascular coupling. When the neuronal firing rate increases in a patch of brain tissue, there is a transient, local increase of the cerebral blood flow (CBF). The oxygen utilization remains about the same, however. This produces a mismatch in the rate of oxygen delivered compared to the rate of oxygen consumption. The CBF goes up a lot while the oxygenation usage increases only slightly. Hence, there is a decrease in the concentration of deoxygenated hemoglobin in the veins draining the neural tissue region, in turn reducing the degree of paramagnetism of these veins that yields a signal increase in a T2*-weighted image. The essential point is that it's blood delivery - changes in CBF - that provides the main impetus for BOLD contrast.

How is blood pressure related to CBF?

The average CBF in a normal adult brain is typically maintained at around 50 ml of blood per 100 g of brain tissue per minute (50 ml/100g/min). The average number, while useful, represents considerable spatial and temporal heterogeneity across the brain. The typical CBF in gray matter is approximately double that in white matter, and there is significant variation across each tissue type arising from tight metabolic coupling. (See Note 1.)

At the local level, blood delivery to tissue is controlled by smooth muscles on the walls of arterioles and capillaries. The degree of vessel dilation, relative to that vessel's maximum possible dilation, is called its tone - the vascular tone. There are mechanisms to expand or constrict the smooth muscles, changing the local blood flow in order to maintain the tight local coupling of CBF to metabolic demand while protecting the vasculature and the tissue against damage that might arise with systemic changes in the blood supply from non-neural mechanisms. The totality of these processes is referred to as cerebral autoregulation. More on the non-neural factors later.

This is all very well, but there is something important missing from this picture. We have neglected to consider so far that the force of blood pumped out of the heart creates a pressure gradient across the arteries and the veins, with the tissue providing a resistance in between. It's this pressure gradient that causes the blood to flow. In fact, simple electrical circuits are a convenient model here. For those of you more familiar with electron flow than blood flow, we can think of the CBF as an analog of electrical current, the pressure difference as a voltage and, naturally enough, the tissue's resistance to flow mimics an electrical resistance. Thus we get:


where CPP is the cerebral perfusion pressure, the net pressure gradient - the driving force - that generates perfusion of brain tissue, and CVR is the cerebrovascular resistance. The CVR is the sum total of all mechanisms exerting control over the vascular tone at a particular location. It isn't easily estimated without detailed knowledge of the processes that might be active. The neurovascular coupling pathways contribute to CVR, for example.