Development of neonatal-specific sequences for portable ultralow field magnetic resonance brain imaging: a prospective, single-centre, cohort study

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Background: Magnetic Resonance (MR) imaging is key for investigation of suspected newborn brain abnormalities. Access is limited in low-resource settings and challenging in infants needing intensive care. Portable ultralow-field (ULF) MRI is showing promise in bedside adult brain imaging. Use in infants and children has been limited as brain-tissue composition differences necessitate sequence modification. The aim of this study was to develop neonatal-specific ULF structural sequences and test these across a range of gestational maturities and pathologies to inform future validation studies.

Methods: Prospective cohort study within a UK neonatal specialist referral centre. Infants undergoing 3T MRI were recruited for paired ULF (64mT) portable MRI by convenience sampling from the neonatal unit and post-natal ward. Key inclusion criteria: 1) Infants with risk or suspicion of brain abnormality, or 2) preterm and term infants without suspicion of major genetic, chromosomal or neurological abnormality. Exclusions: presence of contra-indication for MR scanning. ULF sequence parameters were optimised for neonatal brain-tissues by iterative and explorative design. Neuroanatomic and pathologic features were compared by unblinded review, informing optimisation of subsequent sequence generations in a step-wise manner. Main outcome: visual identification of healthy and abnormal brain tissues/structures. ULF MR spectroscopy, diffusion, susceptibility weighted imaging, arteriography, and venography require pre-clinical technical development and have not been tested.

Findings: Between Sep 23, 2021, and Oct 25, 2022, 102 paired scans were acquired in 87 infants; 1.17 paired scans per infant. Median age 9 days, median postmenstrual age 40+2 weeks (range: 31+3–53+4). Infants had a range of intensive care requirements. No adverse events observed. Optimised ULF sequences can visualise key neuroanatomy and brain abnormalities. In finalised neonatal sequences: T2w imaging distinguished grey and white matter (7/7 infants), ventricles (7/7), pituitary tissue (5/7), corpus callosum (7/7) and optic nerves (7/7). Signal congruence was seen within the posterior limb of the internal capsule in 10/11 infants on finalised T1w scans. In addition, brain abnormalities visualised on ULF optimised sequences have similar MR signal patterns to 3T imaging, including injury secondary to infarction (6/6 infants on T2w scans), hypoxia-ischaemia (abnormal signal in basal ganglia, thalami and white matter 2/2 infants on T2w scans, cortical highlighting 1/1 infant on T1w scan), and congenital malformations: polymicrogyria 3/3, absent corpus callosum 2/2, and vermian hypoplasia 3/3 infants on T2w scans. Sequences are susceptible to motion corruption, noise, and ULF artefact. Non-identified pathologies were small or subtle.

Interpretation: On unblinded review, optimised portable MR can provide sufficient contrast, signal, and resolution for neuroanatomical identification and detection of a range of clinically important abnormalities. Blinded validation studies are now warranted.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 18 Sept 2023


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