Quantitative streamlines tractography: methods and inter-subject normalisation

Robert E. Smitha,b, David Raffelta, J-Donald Tournierc, Alan Connellya,b,d

a The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Heidelberg, Victoria, Australia

b Florey Department of Neuroscience and Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

c Centre for the Developing Brain, School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, King’s College London, London, UK

d Department of Medicine, Austin Health and Northern Health, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


ABSTRACT

Recent developments in semi-global tractogram optimisation algorithms have opened the field of diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to the possibility of performing quantitative assessment of structural fibre ‘connectivity’. The proper application of these methods in neuroscience research has, however, been limited by a lack of awareness, understanding, or appreciation for the consequences of these methods; furthermore, particular steps necessary to use these tools in an appropriate manner to fully exploit their quantitative properties have not yet been described. This article therefore serves three purposes: to increase awareness of the fact that there are existing tools that attempt to address the well-known non-quantitative nature of streamlines counts; to illustrate why these algorithms work the way they do to yield quantitative estimates of white matter ‘connectivity’ (in the form of total intra-axonal cross-sectional area: ‘fibre bundle capacity (FBC)’); and to explain how to properly utilise these results for quantitative tractography analysis across subjects.

Keywords: Magnetic resonance imaging, diffusion, white matter, streamlines tractography, quantification

Corresponding author: Robert E Smith, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Melbourne Brain Centre, 245 Burgundy Street, Heidelberg, Victoria 3084, Australia, Phone: (+61 3) 9035 7128, Fax: (+61 3) 9035 7301, Email: robert.smith@florey.edu.au

Received: 02.10.2020

Accepted: 24.01.2022

DOI: 10.52294/ApertureNeuro.2022.2.NEOD9565



ABBREVIATIONS

AFD: apparent fibre density;

COMMIT: convex optimisation modelling for microstructure-informed tractography; DWI: diffusion-weighted imaging (/image)

FBA: fixel-based analysis;

FBC: fibre bundle capacity (an estimate of the bandwidth of a white matter pathway); FC: fibre cross-section (NB: macroscopic change in);

FD: fibre density (microscopic);

FDC: fibre density and cross-section (combined measure of FD and FC); ‘fixel’: specific fibre population within a voxel;

FOD: fibre orientation distribution; LiFE: linear fascicle evaluation;

SIFT: spherical-deconvolution informed filtering of tractograms.


INTRODUCTION

Since the introduction of tractography to the field of diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), there has been extensive interest in the use of this technology to assess fibre ‘connectivity’ in the brain for various neuroscientific

applications.1–4 The vast majority of tractography algorithms operate on the same fundamental mechanism: the ‘streamlines’ algorithm, where plausible white matter fibre pathways are constructed by iteratively propagating along the local estimated fibre orientation.5–9 Unfortunately, this mechanism of reconstruction does not directly facilitate


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one of the most fundamental parameters of interest: the density of ‘connectivity’ between two brain regions.10 A major contributing factor to this limitation is that while the streamlines algorithm enforces that the reconstructed trajectories obey the estimated orientations of the underlying fibre bundles, it provides no meaningful control over the reconstructed densities of those bundles.

The class of ‘global tractography’ methods11–15 has for many years shown promise to circumvent this problem. While in the ‘streamlines’ algorithm individual white matter trajectories are propagated independently and using only local fibre orientation information, these ‘global’ methods simultaneously solve for all connections at once, in a manner that enforces the entire tractogram reconstruction to be consistent with the raw diffusion image data. Even the most modern of these methods, however, incur considerable computational expense (particularly as reconstructions with greater numbers of connections are sought), and typically do not provide any guarantees regarding the construction of connections with biologically meaningful terminations, for instance, resulting in terminations in the white matter or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that are otherwise considered erroneous.16,17

A new class of ‘semi-global’ tractogram optimisation algorithms offers a potential compromise18–22; these have additionally been referred to as ‘tractogram filtering’, ‘microstructure-informed tractography’, and ‘top-down’ algorithms in various contexts. These approaches take as input a whole-brain tractogram generated using one or more streamlines tractography algorithms and modify the reconstruction in some way such that the local streamlines densities become consistent with the density of underlying fibres evidenced by the image data. These methods therefore enable quantitative assessment of fibre ‘connectivity’ (within the myriad other associated limitations of diffusion MRI and streamlines tractography), with whole-brain reconstructions that are sufficiently dense to enable higher-level analyses (e.g. connecto-mics23,24) within reasonable computational requirements. Despite the potential influence of these methods on the neuroimaging field, they have had only limited uptake. This may be due to a lack of awareness of the public availability of such methods, or a lack of understanding that these methods address some of the origins of the limitations of raw streamline count as a metric of ‘con-nectivity’. Furthermore, although these methods seek to modulate the relative connection densities of different white matter pathways within a single brain, the appropriate mechanism by which these quantities should be compared across subjects has not yet been comprehensively explained in the literature. This article therefore serves three purposes, with the aim of increasing the util-

ity of these tools in the field:

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Fig. 1. Contextualisation of semi-global tractogram optimisation algorithms. Given the existence of a biological white matter pathway of interest (a), diffusion-weighted imaging is performed (b). A diffusion model is fitted to these data to yield fibre orientation (c) and density (d) estimates. Fibre orientations are utilised by a tractography algorithm to produce streamlines (e). An optimisation algorithm operates on both the tractogram reconstruction and FD information to yield an estimate of bundle connectivity, here named ‘fibre bundle capacity (FBC)’, which should ideally be proportional to the connectivity of the biological bundle.


a piecewise fashion the fibres within the pathway of interest (Figure 1e). Unlike biological axons, reconstructed streamlines have no associated volume and are therefore shown as infinitesimally thin in Figure 1e. The number of streamlines traversing any given image voxel may be of the order of 1,000, but varies wildly depending on reconstruction parameters.