White matter fiber tractography: why we need to move beyond DTI


J Neurosurg 118:1367–1377, 2013

Diffusion-based MRI tractography is an imaging tool increasingly used in neurosurgical procedures to generate 3D maps of white matter pathways as an aid to identifying safe margins of resection. The majority of white matter fiber tractography software packages currently available to clinicians rely on a fundamentally flawed framework to generate fiber orientations from diffusion-weighted data, namely diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). This work provides the first extensive and systematic exploration of the practical limitations of DTI-based tractography and investigates whether the higher-order tractography model constrained spherical deconvolution provides a reasonable solution to these problems within a clinically feasible timeframe.

Methods. Comparison of tractography methodologies in visualizing the corticospinal tracts was made using the diffusion-weighted data sets from 45 healthy controls and 10 patients undergoing presurgical imaging assessment. Tensor-based and constrained spherical deconvolution–based tractography methodologies were applied to both patients and controls.

Results. Diffusion tensor imaging–based tractography methods (using both deterministic and probabilistic tractography algorithms) substantially underestimated the extent of tracks connecting to the sensorimotor cortex in all participants in the control group. In contrast, the constrained spherical deconvolution tractography method consistently produced the biologically expected fan-shaped configuration of tracks. In the clinical cases, in which tractography was performed to visualize the corticospinal pathways in patients with concomitant risk of neurological deficit following neurosurgical resection, the constrained spherical deconvolution–based and tensor-based tractography methodologies indicated very different apparent safe margins of resection; the constrained spherical deconvolution– based method identified corticospinal tracts extending to the entire sensorimotor cortex, while the tensor-based method only identified a narrow subset of tracts extending medially to the vertex.

Conclusions. This comprehensive study shows that the most widely used clinical tractography method (diffusion tensor imaging–based tractography) results in systematically unreliable and clinically misleading information. The higher-order tractography model, using the same diffusion-weighted data, clearly demonstrates fiber tracts more accurately, providing improved estimates of safety margins that may be useful in neurosurgical procedures. We therefore need to move beyond the diffusion tensor framework if we are to begin to provide neurosurgeons with biologically reliable tractography information.