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Neuroimage. 2012 Nov 1;63(2):779-88. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.07.016. Epub 2012 Jul 17.

A robust method for investigating thalamic white matter tracts after traumatic brain injury.

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  • 1Department of Information Engineering, University of Padova, via Gradenigo 6/B, 35131 Padova, Italy.


Damage to the structural connections of the thalamus is a frequent feature of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and can be a key factor in determining clinical outcome. Until recently it has been difficult to quantify the extent of this damage in vivo. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) provides a validated method to investigate traumatic axonal injury, and can be applied to quantify damage to thalamic connections. DTI can also be used to assess white matter tract structure using tractography, and this technique has been used to study thalamo-cortical connections in the healthy brain. However, the presence of white matter injury can cause failure of tractography algorithms. Here, we report a method for investigating thalamo-cortical connectivity that bypasses the need for individual tractography. We first created a template for a number of thalamo-cortical connections using probabilistic tractography performed in ten healthy subjects. This template for investigating white matter structure was validated by comparison with individual tractography in the same group, as well as in an independent control group (N=11). We also evaluated two methods of masking tract location using the tract skeleton generated by tract based spatial statistics, and a cerebrospinal fluid mask. Voxel-wise estimates of fractional anisotropy derived from the template were more strongly correlated with individual tractography when both types of masking were used. The tract templates were then used to sample DTI measures from a group of TBI patients (N=22), with direct comparison performed against probabilistic tractography in individual patients. Probabilistic tractography often failed to produce anatomically plausible tracts in TBI patients. Importantly, we show that this problem increases as tracts become more damaged, and leads to underestimation of the amount of traumatic axonal injury. In contrast, the tract template can be used in these cases, allowing a more accurate assessment of white matter damage. In summary, we propose a method suitable for assessing specific thalamo-cortical white matter connections after TBI that is robust to the presence of varying amounts of traumatic axonal injury, as well as highlighting the potential problems of applying tractography algorithms in patient populations.

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