Geophysical Joint Inversion for Accurate Brain Myelin Mapping

The research community has long been on the trail of a substance that could be a key to understanding many neurological diseases: myelin is a biomembrane that surrounds most neurons in the human brain. "In many diseases, like multiple sclerosis for example, the myelin content of the brain decreases," explains Prof. Dr. Tony Stöcker of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE). "Myelin can therefore serve as a marker for early detection: if we observe in good time that the myelin content is decreasing, then we could catch the onset of a disease at an early stage."

Colorful image of nerve fibres in a human brain

The trouble is that it has been difficult so far to precisely quantify how much myelin is present. Experienced radiologists can assess brain tissue subjectively from MRI scans, where the variations in contrast allow them to draw conclusions about the state of the myelin, however they cannot determine the exact amount.

MRT images of human brain being transformed into one analyzing image

In this project, a method will be developed that can automatically calculate how much myelin is present in the brain from a combination of different MRI scans. The researchers will be using methods that are already being used in geophysics to deduce information about underground layers of earth from images of the ground surface. This involves complex mathematical tools and inversion methods, which have never before been used in medical imaging. 

If successful, the new method could greatly facilitate the early detection and even the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.