Reliability of resting-state functional connectivity in the human spinal cord: assessing the impact of distinct noise sources

Merve Kaptan, Ulrike Horn, S. Johanna Vannesjo, Toralf Mildner, Nikolaus Weiskopf, Jürgen Finsterbusch, Jonathan C. W. Brooks, Falk Eippert

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The investigation of spontaneous fluctuations of the blood-oxygen-level-dependent (BOLD) signal has recently been extended from the brain to the spinal cord, where it has stimulated interest from a clinical perspective. A number of resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have demonstrated robust functional connectivity between the time series of BOLD fluctuations in bilateral dorsal horns and between those in bilateral ventral horns, in line with the functional neuroanatomy of the spinal cord. A necessary step prior to extension to clinical studies is assessing the reliability of such resting-state signals, which we aimed to do here in a group of 45 healthy young adults at the clinically prevalent field strength of 3T. When investigating connectivity in the entire cervical spinal cord, we observed fair to good reliability for dorsal-dorsal and ventral-ventral connectivity, whereas reliability was poor for within- and between-hemicord dorsal-ventral connectivity. Considering how prone spinal cord fMRI is to noise, we extensively investigated the impact of distinct noise sources and made two crucial observations: removal of physiological noise led to a reduction in functional connectivity strength and reliability – due to the removal of stable and participant-specific noise patterns – whereas removal of thermal noise considerably increased the detectability of functional connectivity without a clear influence on reliability. Finally, we also assessed connectivity within spinal cord segments and observed that while the pattern of connectivity was similar to that of whole cervical cord, reliability at the level of single segments was consistently poor. Taken together, our results demonstrate the presence of reliable resting-state functional connectivity in the human spinal cord even after thoroughly accounting for physiological and thermal noise, but at the same time urge caution if focal changes in connectivity (e.g. due to segmental lesions) are to be studied, especially in a longitudinal manner.
Original languageEnglish
Article number120152
Early online date2 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2023

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