Magnetic resonance (MRI)-based molecular imaging methods are beginning to have impact in neuroscience. A growing number of molecular imaging agents have been synthesized and tested in vitro, but so far relatively few have been validated in the brains of live animals. Here, we discuss key challenges associated with expanding the repertoire of successful molecular neuroimaging approaches. The difficulty of delivering agents past the blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a particular obstacle to molecular imaging in the central nervous system. We review established and emerging techniques for trans-BBB delivery, including intracranial infusion, BBB disruption, and transporter-related methods. Improving the sensitivity with which MRI-based molecular agents can be detected is a second major challenge. Better sensitivity would in turn reduce the requirements for delivery and alleviate potential side effects. We discuss recent efforts to enhance relaxivity of conventional longitudinal relaxation time (T(1)) and transverse relaxation time (T(2)) MRI contrast agents, as well as strategies that involve amplifying molecular signals or reducing endogenous background influences. With ongoing refinement of imaging approaches and brain delivery methods, MRI-based techniques for molecular-level neuroscientific investigation will fall increasingly within reach.
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