At last month's Human Brain Mapping conference in Seattle, a poster by Harvard scientists Stephanie McMains and Ross Mair (poster 3412) showed yet more evidence that the benefits of a 32-channel coil for fMRI at 3 T aren't immediately obvious. Previous work by Kaza, Klose and Lotze in 2011 (doi: 10.1002/jmri.22614) had suggested that the benefits were regional, with cortical areas benefiting from the additional signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) whereas the standard 12-channel coil was superior for fMRI of deeper structures such as thalamus and cerebellum. The latest work by McMains and Mair confirms an earlier report from Li, Wang and Wang (ISMRM 17th Annual Meeting, 2009. Abstract #1614) that showed spatial resolution also affects the benefit, if any. In a nutshell, if a typical voxel resolution of 3 mm is used then the 32-channel coil provides no benefit over a 12-channel coil. The 32-channel coil was best only when resolution was pushed to 2 mm, thereby pushing the SNR down towards the thermal noise limit, or when using high acceleration, e.g. GRAPPA with acceleration, R > 2.
What's going on? In the first instance we need to think about the regimes that limit fMRI at different spatial resolutions. In the absence of subject motion and physiologic noise, the SNR of an EPI voxel will tend towards a thermal noise-limiting regime as it gets smaller. Let's assume a fairly typical SNR of 60 for a voxel that has dimensions 3.5x3.5x3.5 mm^3, as detected by a 12-channel head coil at 3 T. If we shrink the voxel to 3x3x3 mm^3 the SNR will decrease by ~27/43, to about 38, while if we shrink to 2x2x2 mm^3 the SNR will decrease to about 11. (Here I am assuming that all factors affecting N are invariant to resolution while S scales with voxel volume, which is sufficient for this discussion.) If we decrease the voxels to 1.5x1.5x1.5 mm^3 the SNR decreases to below five. The SNR is barely above one if we push all the way to 1x1x1 mm^3 resolution, which is why you don't often see fMRI resolution better than 2 mm at 3 T. Thus, if high spatial resolution is the goal then one needs to boost the SNR well beyond what we started of with to achieve a reasonable image. Hence the move to larger phased-array receive coils.
So that's the situation when the thermal noise is limiting. This is generally the case for anatomical MRI, but does it apply to fMRI? If something else is limiting - either physiologic noise or subject motion - then increasing the raw SNR may not help as expected. In fMRI we are generally less concerned with true (white) thermal noise than we are with erroneous modulation of our signal. It's not noise so much as it is signal changes of no interest. For this reason, Gonzalez-Castillo et al. (doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.020) recently proposed using a very low flip angle in order to minimize physiologic noise while leaving functional signal changes unchanged.
|From ISMRM e-poster 3352, available as a PDF via this link.|
What if we can't even attain the physiologic noise-limiting regime? It's quite possible to be in a subject motion-limiting regime, as anyone who has run an fMRI experiment can attest. In that case, the use of a high dimensional array coil (of 32 channels, say) could actually impose a higher motion sensitivity on the time series than it would have had were it detected by a smaller array coil (of 12 channels, say), due to the greater receive field heterogeneity of the 32-channel coil. This was something a colleague and I considered last year, in an arXiv paper (http://arxiv.org/abs/1210.3633) and accompanying blog post. In an e-poster at this year's ISMRM Annual Meeting (abstract #3352; a PDF of the slides is available via this Dropbox link) we simulated the effects of motion on temporal SNR (tSNR), as well as the potential for spurious correlations in resting-state fMRI, when using a 32-channel coil. In doing these simulations we assumed perfect motion correction yet there were still drastic effects, as the above figure illustrates.
Whether the equivocal benefits of a 32-channel coil for routine fMRI (that is, using 3-ish mm voxels) are due to enhanced motion sensitivity, higher physiologic noise or some other factor I'm not in a position to say with any certainty. My colleagues and I, and others, are investigating ways that we might reduce the effects of receive field contrast on motion correction. The use of a prescan normalization is one idea that might help, at least a bit. The process has many assumptions and potential flaws, but it may offer the prospect of getting back some of what might be lost courtesy of the enhanced motion sensitivity. We simply don't know yet. The bigger problem, however, seems to be that a heterogeneous receive field contrast will impart motion sensitivity on a time series even if motion correction were perfect. Strong receive field heterogeneity, of the sort exhibited by a 32-channel head coil, is a killer if the subject moves.
Unless you are attempting to use highly accelerated parallel imaging (in particular the multiband sequences) and/or pushing your voxel size towards 2 mm, then, you're almost certainly better off sticking with the 12-channel coil as far as fMRI performance is concerned. Other scans, in particular anatomical scans and perhaps some diffusion-weighted scans, may benefit from larger array coils (because these scans may be in the thermal noise-limiting regime), but each application will need to be verified independently.