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Magn Reson Imaging. 2013 Dec;31(10):1709-30. doi: 10.1016/j.mri.2013.07.017. Epub 2013 Sep 20.

The effects of changing water content, relaxation times, and tissue contrast on tissue segmentation and measures of cortical anatomy in MR images.

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Department of Psychiatry, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, NY 10032. Electronic address:


Water content is the dominant chemical compound in the brain and it is the primary determinant of tissue contrast in magnetic resonance (MR) images. Water content varies greatly between individuals, and it changes dramatically over time from birth through senescence of the human life span. We hypothesize that the effects that individual- and age-related variations in water content have on contrast of the brain in MR images also have important, systematic effects on in vivo, MRI-based measures of regional brain volumes. We also hypothesize that changes in water content and tissue contrast across time may account for age-related changes in regional volumes, and that differences in water content or tissue contrast across differing neuropsychiatric diagnoses may account for differences in regional volumes across diagnostic groups. We demonstrate in several complementary ways that subtle variations in water content across age and tissue compartments alter tissue contrast, and that changing tissue contrast in turn alters measures of the thickness and volume of the cortical mantle: (1) We derive analytic relations describing how age-related changes in tissue relaxation times produce age-related changes in tissue gray-scale intensity values and tissue contrast; (2) We vary tissue contrast in computer-generated images to assess its effects on tissue segmentation and volumes of gray matter and white matter; and (3) We use real-world imaging data from adults with either Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder and age- and sex-matched healthy adults to assess the ways in which variations in tissue contrast across diagnoses affects group differences in tissue segmentation and associated volumes. We conclude that in vivo MRI-based morphological measures of the brain, including regional volumes and measures of cortical thickness, are a product of, or at least are confounded by, differences in tissue contrast across individuals, ages, and diagnostic groups, and that differences in tissue contrast in turn likely derive from corresponding differences in water content of the brain across individuals, ages, and diagnostic groups.


Anatomical MRI; Expectation maximization; Markov random field; Segmentation; Tissue contrast

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