Free-water imaging in Friedreich ataxia using multi-compartment models

Lara Fernandez, Louise A. Corben, Hiba Bilal, Martin B. Delatycki, Gary F. Egan, Ian H. Harding

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Background: The neurological phenotype of Friedreich ataxia (FRDA) is characterized by neurodegeneration and neuroinflammation in the cerebellum and brainstem. Novel neuroimaging approaches quantifying brain free-water using diffusion magnetic resonance imaging (dMRI) are potentially more sensitive to these processes than standard imaging markers. Objectives: To quantify the extent of free-water and microstructural change in FRDA-relevant brain regions using neurite orientation dispersion and density imaging (NODDI), and bitensor diffusion tensor imaging (btDTI). Method: Multi-shell dMRI was acquired from 14 individuals with FRDA and 14 controls. Free-water measures from NODDI (FISO) and btDTI (FW) were compared between groups in the cerebellar cortex, dentate nuclei, cerebellar peduncles, and brainstem. The relative sensitivity of the free-water measures to group differences was compared to microstructural measures of NODDI intracellular volume, free-water corrected fractional anisotropy, and conventional uncorrected fractional anisotropy. Results: In individuals with FRDA, FW was elevated in the cerebellar cortex, peduncles (excluding middle), dentate, and brainstem (P < 0.005). FISO was elevated primarily in the cerebellar lobules (P < 0.001). On average, FW effect sizes were larger than all other markers (mean ηρ2 = 0.43), although microstructural measures also had very large effects in the superior and inferior cerebellar peduncles and brainstem (ηρ2 > 0.37). Across all regions and metrics, effect sizes were largest in the superior cerebellar peduncles (ηρ2 > 0.46). Conclusions: Multi-compartment diffusion measures of free-water and neurite integrity distinguish FRDA from controls with large effects. Free-water magnitude in the brainstem and cerebellum provided the greatest distinction between groups. This study supports further applications of multi-compartment diffusion modeling, and investigations of free-water as a measure of disease expression and progression in FRDA.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)370-379
Number of pages11
JournalMovement Disorders
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


  • brainstem
  • cerebellum
  • diffusion MRI
  • free-water
  • Friedreich ataxia
  • multi-compartment models

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