Diagnostic methods and biomarkers of early disc degeneration are needed as emerging treatment technologies develop (e.g., nucleus replacement, total disc arthroplasty, cell therapy, growth factor therapy) to serve as an alternative to lumbar spine fusion in treatment of low back pain. We have recently demonstrated in cadaveric human discs an MR imaging and analysis technique, spin-lock T1ρ-weighted MRI, which may provide a quantitative, objective, and non-invasive assessment of disc degeneration. The goal of the present study was to assess the feasibility of using T1ρ MRI in vivo to detect intervertebral disc degeneration. We evaluated ten asymptomatic 40–60-year-old subjects. Each subject was imaged on a 1.5 T whole-body clinical MR scanner. Mean T1ρ values from a circular region of interest in the center of the nucleus pulposus were calculated from maps generated from a series of T1ρ-weighted images. The degenerative grade of each lumbar disc was assessed from conventional T2-weighted images according to the Pfirmann classification system. The T1ρ relaxation correlated significantly with disc degeneration (r=−0.51, P<0.01) and the values were consistent with our previous cadaveric study, in which we demonstrated correlation between T1ρ and proteoglycan content. The technique allows for spatial measurements on a continuous rather than an integer-based scale, minimizes the potential for observer bias, has a greater dynamic range than T2-weighted imaging, and can be implemented on a 1.5 T clinical scanner without significant hardware modifications. Thus, there is a strong potential to use T1ρ in vivo as a non-invasive biomarker of proteoglycan loss and early disc degeneration
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