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!

Monday, February 25, 2019

Using multiband-EPI for diffusion imaging on low-dimensional array coils

This is a continuation of the previous post looking at MB-EPI on a receive coil with limited spatial information provided by its geometry, such as the 12-channel TIM coil or the 4-channel neck coil on a Siemens Trio.

Simultaneous multi-slice (SMS), aka multi-band (MB), offers considerable time savings for diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI). Unlike in fMRI, where MB factors of 4 or more are quite common, in DWI few studies use MB factors greater than 3. While it may be feasible in principle to push the acquisition time even lower without generating artifacts using a large array coil like the Siemens 32-channel coil, we run into another consideration: heating. Heating isn't usually a concern for gradient echo MB-EPI used in conventional fMRI experiments. In fMRI, the excitation flip angles are generally 78° or less. But with DWI we have a double whammy. Not only do we want a large excitation flip angle to create plenty of signal, we also require a refocusing pulse that is, by convention, set at twice the flip angle of the excitation pulse. (The standard nomenclature is 90° for excitation and 180° for refocusing, but the actual angles may be lower than this in practice, for a variety of reasons I won't go into here.) Now the real kicker. The heat deposition, which we usually measure through the specific absorption rate (SAR), scales quadratically with flip angle. Thus, a single 180° refocusing pulse deposits as much heat as four 90° pulses! (See Note 1.) But wait! It gets worse! In using simultaneous multi-slice - the clue's in the name - we're not doing the equivalent of one excitation or refocusing at a time, but a factor MB of them. Some quick arithmetic to give you a feel for the issue. A diffusion scan run with 90° and 180° pulses, each using MB=3, will deposit fifteen times as much heat as a conventional EPI scan run at the same TR but with a single 90° pulse. On a 3 T scanner, it means we are quickly flirting with SAR limits when the MB factor goes beyond three. The only remedy is to extend TR, thereby undermining the entire basis for deploying SMS in the first place.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves. With a low-dimensional array such as the Siemens 12-channel TIM coil we would be delighted to get MB to work at all for diffusion imaging. The chances of flirting with the SAR limits are a distant dream.

Phantom tests for diffusion imaging

The initial tests were on the FBIRN gel phantom. I compared MB=3 and MB=2 for the 32-channel, 12-channel and neck coils using approximately the same slice coverage throughout. The TR was allowed to increase as needed in going from MB=3 to MB=2. Following CMRR's recommendations, I used the SENSE1 coil combine option throughout. I also used the Grad. rev. fat suppr. option to maximize scalp fat suppression, something that we have found is important for reducing ghosts in larger subjects (especially on the 32-channel coil, which has a pronounced receive bias around the periphery). For the diffusion weighting itself, I opted to use the scheme developed for the UK Biobank project, producing two shells at b=1000 s/mm² and b=2000 s/mm², fifty directions apiece. Four b=0 images are also included, one per twenty diffusion images. (For routine use we now actually use ten b=0 images, one every ten DW images, for a total of 111 directions.) The nominal spatial resolution is (2 mm)³. The TE is 94.8 ms, which is the minimum value attainable at the highest b value used.

There are over a hundred images we could inspect, and you would want to check all of them before you committed to a specific protocol in a real experiment because there might be some strange interaction between the eddy currents from the diffusion-weighting gradients and the MB scheme. For brevity, however, I will restrict the comparisons here to examples of the b=0, 1000 and 2000 scans. I decided to make a 2x2 comparison of a single band reference image (SBRef), a b=0 image (the b=0 scan obtained after the first twenty DW scans), and the first b=1000 and b=2000 images in the series. While only a small fraction of the entire data set, these views are sufficient to identify the residual aliasing artifacts that tell us where the acceleration limit sits.

First up, the results from the 32-channel coil, which is our performance benchmark. No artifacts are visible by eye for any of the b=0, b=1000 or b=2000 scans at either MB=2 or MB=3:

32-channel coil, MB=3. TL: Single band reference image. TR: first b=0 image (21st acquisition in the series). BL: first b=1000 image. BR: First b=2000 image

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).