Claudia AM Wheeler-Kingshott, Ph.D.
University Reader in Magnetic Resonance Physics, Department of Neuroinflammation, UCL Institute of Neurology, London, UK
Detecting neuronal activity in vivo non-invasively is possible with a number of techniques. Amongst these, in 1990 functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was proposed as a technique that has a great ability to spatially map brain activity by exploiting the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) contrast mechanism [1, 2]. In fact, neuronal activation triggers a demand for oxygen and induces a localised increase in blood flow and blood volume, which actually exceeds the metabolic needs. This in turns causes an increase of oxyhaemoglobin in the venous compartment, which is a transient phenomenon and is accompanied by a transient change (decrease) in the concentration of deoxyhaemoglobin. Due to its paramagnetic properties, the amount of deoxyhaemoglobin present in the venous blood affects the local magnetic field seen by the spins (protons) and determines the local properties of the MR signal. A decrease in deoxyhaemoglobin during neuronal activity, therefore, induces local variations of this magnetic field that increases the average transverse relaxation time of tissue, measured via the T2* parameter . This means that there is an increase of the MR signal (of the order of a few %, typically <5%) linked to metabolic changes happening during brain function. Activation can be inferred at different brain locations by performing tasks while acquiring the MR signal and comparing periods of rest to periods of activity.
The macroscopic changes of the BOLD signal are well characterised, while the reason for the increased blood supply, exceeding demands, needs further thoughts. Here we will discuss two approaches for explaining the BOLD phenomenon, one that links it to adenosine triphosphate production  and enzyme saturation, the other that relates it to the very slow diffusion of oxygen through the blood-brain-barrier with a consequent compensatory high demand of oxygen . Some evidence of restricted oxygen diffusion has been shown by means of hypercapnia , although it is not excluded that both mechanisms may be present.
Overall, the BOLD signal changes theory and its physiological basis will be presented and discussed.
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