Objective Interpretation of diffusion MRI in the living brain requires validation against gold standard histological measures. We compared diffusion values of the nigrostriatal tract to PET and histological results in non-human primates (NHPs) with varying degrees of unilateral nigrostriatal injury induced by MPTP, a toxin selective for dopaminergic neurons. Methods Sixteen NHPs had MRI and PET scans of three different presynaptic radioligands and blinded video-based motor ratings before and after unilateral carotid artery infusion of variable doses of MPTP. Diffusion measures of connections between midbrain and striatum were calculated. Then animals were euthanized to quantify striatal dopamine concentration, stereologic measures of striatal tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) immunostained fiber density and unbiased stereologic counts of TH stained nigral cells. Results Diffusion measures correlated with MPTP dose, nigral TH-positive cell bodies and striatal TH-positive fiber density but did not correlate with in vitro nigrostriatal terminal field measures or in vivo PET measures of striatal uptake of presynaptic markers. Once nigral TH cell count loss exceeded 50% the stereologic terminal field measures reached a near zero floor effect but the diffusion measures continued to correlate with nigral cell counts. Conclusion Diffusion measures in the nigrostriatal tract correlate with nigral dopamine neurons and striatal fiber density, but have the same relationship to terminal field measures as a previous report of striatal PET measures of presynaptic neurons. These diffusion measures have the potential to act as non-invasive index of the severity of nigrostriatal injury. Diffusion imaging of the nigrostriatal tract could potentially have diagnostic value in humans with Parkinson disease or related disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0202201
JournalPloS one
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2018


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