Purpose: The effectiveness of diffusion trace value analysis for non-invasive assessment of retinal ganglion cell (RGC) axonal degeneration at multiple anatomic levels along the human visual pathway under clinical setting was evaluated. Design: Imaging study. Methods: Ten patients with unilateral chronic optic neuropathy of varying cause and 16 age-matched normal subjects were studied. Trace, a tensor invariant that is considered to be a sensitive index for pathologic changes in axons, was analyzed at nine anatomic sites in each subject, namely, bilaterally at the level of the optic nerves, uncrossed chiasmal fibers, optic tracts and optic radiations, and crossed chiasmal fibers, using a 3.0 Tesla magnetic resonance imaging system. Results: Trace values of the optic nerve and uncrossed chiasmal fibers ipsilateral to the affected eye, the crossed chiasmal fibers, and optic tracts bilaterally were significantly higher than those of the corresponding anatomic sites in normal subjects. The optic nerve and uncrossed chiasmal fibers ipsilateral to the unaffected side and optic radiations, bilaterally, had trace values which were not significantly different from the values of the corresponding anatomic levels in normal subjects. The increase in trace value in the optic nerve and uncrossed chiasmal fibers ipsilateral to the affected side was greater than those of the crossed chiasmal fibers and optic tracts. Conclusions: Findings are highly consistent with a degenerative process of RGC axons and trace values are quantitatively well correlated to predicted pathology at the given anatomical sites. Trace value measurement at multiple sites along fiber pathways appears to be a powerful addition to clinical assessment of the functionality of components of the visual pathways during various stages of a pathologic process.
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