This article provides an overview of in vivo magnetic resonance (MR) imaging contrasts obtained for mammalian brain in relation to histological knowledge. Emphasis is paid to the (1) significance of high spatial resolution for the optimization of T1, T2, and magnetization transfer contrast, (2) use of exogenous extra- and intracellular contrast agents for validating endogenous contrast sources, and (3) histological structures and biochemical compounds underlying these contrasts and (4) their relevance to neuroradiology. Comparisons between MR imaging at subnanoliter resolution and histological data indicate that (a) myelin sheaths, (b) nerve cells, and (c) the neuropil are most responsible for observed MR imaging contrasts, while (a) diamagnetic macromolecules, (b) intracellular paramagnetic ions, and (c) extracellular free water, respectively, emerge as the dominant factors. Enhanced relaxation rates due to paramagnetic ions, such as iron and manganese, have been observed for oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, microglia, and blood cells in the brain as well as for nerve cells. Taken together, a plethora of observations suggests that the delineation of specific structures in high-resolution MR imaging of mammalian brain and the absence of corresponding contrasts in MR imaging of the human brain do not necessarily indicate differences between species but may be explained by partial volume effects. Second, paramagnetic ions are required in active cells in vivo which may reduce the magnetization transfer ratio in the brain through accelerated T1 recovery. Third, reductions of the magnetization transfer ratio may be more sensitive to a particular pathological condition, such as astrocytosis, microglial activation, inflammation, and demyelination, than changes in relaxation. This is because the simultaneous occurrence of increased paramagnetic ions (i.e., shorter relaxation times) and increased free water (i.e., longer relaxation times) may cancel T1 or T2 effects, whereas both processes reduce the magnetization transfer ratio.
2016 by Japanese Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine