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Neuroimage. 2013 Nov 15;82:336-43. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.06.010. Epub 2013 Jun 12.

Comparing neural response to painful electrical stimulation with functional MRI at 3 and 7 T.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Medical University of Vienna, Austria.


Progressing from 3T to 7 T functional MRI enables marked improvements of human brain imaging in vivo. Although direct comparisons demonstrated advantages concerning blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signal response and spatial specificity, these mostly focused on single brain regions with rather simple tasks. Considering that physiological noise also increases with higher field strength, it is not entirely clear whether the advantages of 7T translate equally to the entire brain during tasks which elicit more complex neuronal processing. Therefore, we investigated the difference between 3T and 7 T in response to transcutaneous electrical painful and non-painful stimulation in 22 healthy subjects. For painful stimuli vs. baseline, stronger activations were observed at 7 T in several brain regions including the insula and supplementary motor area, but not the secondary somatosensory cortex (p<0.05 FWE-corrected). Contrasting painful vs. non-painful stimulation limited the differences between the field strengths to the periaqueductal gray (PAG, p<0.001 uncorrected) due to a similar signal increase at 7 T for both the target and specific control condition in most brain regions. This regional specificity obtained for the PAG at higher field strengths was confirmed by an additional spatial normalization strategy optimized for the brainstem. Here, robust BOLD responses were obtained in the dorsal PAG at 7 T (p<0.05 FWE-corrected), whereas at 3T activation was completely missing for the contrast against non-painful stimuli. To summarize, our findings support previously reported benefits obtained at ultra-high field strengths also for complex activation patterns elicited by painful electrical stimulation. However, this advantage depends on the region and even more on the contrast of interest. The greatest gain at 7 T was observed within the small brainstem region of the PAG, where the increased field strength offered marked improvement for the localization of activation foci with high spatial specificity.

Copyright © 2013 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


3T; 7T; Pain stimulation; fMRI

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