It is the Locus Coeruleus! Or… is it? : A proposition for analyses and reporting standards for structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging of the noradrenergic Locus Coeruleus

Yeo-Jin Yi, Falk Lüsebrink, Anne Maaß, Gabriel Ziegler, Renat Yakupov, Michael C. Kreißl, Matthew Betts, Oliver Speck, Emrah Düzel, Dorothea Hämmerer

The noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) in the brainstem shows early signs of protein pathologies in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. As the LC’s small size (approximately 2.5 mm in width) presents a challenge for molecular imaging, the past decade has seen a steep rise in structural and functional Magnetic Resonance (MR) studies aiming to characterise the LC’s changes in ageing and neurodegeneration. However, given its position in the brainstem and small volume, great care must be taken to yield methodologically reliable MR results as spatial deviations in transformations can greatly reduce the statistical power of the analyses at the group level. Here, we suggest a spatial transformation procedure and a set of quality assessment methods which allow LC researchers to achieve the spatial precision necessary for investigating this small but potentially impactful brain structure.

Using a combination of available toolboxes (SPM12, ANTs, FSL, FreeSurfer), individual structural and functional 3T LC scans are transformed into MNI space via a study-specific anatomical template. Following this, the precision of spatial alignment in individual MNI-transformed images is quantified using in-plane distance measures based on slice-specific centroids of structural LC segmentations and based on landmarks of salient anatomical features in mean functional images, respectively.

Median in-plane distance of all landmarks on the transformed structural as well as functional LC imaging data were below 2 mm, thereby falling below the typical LC width of 2.5 mm suggested by post-mortem data.

With the set of spatial post-processing steps outlined in this paper and available for download, we hope to give readers interested in LC imaging a starting point for a reliable analysis of structural and functional MR data of the LC and to have also taken a first step towards establishing reporting standards of LC imaging data.

Participating Institutions