Intervertebral disc degeneration is a prevalent phenomenon associated with back pain. It is of critical clinical interest to discriminate disc health and identify early stages of degeneration. Traditional clinical T2-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), assessed using the Pfirrmann classification system, is subjective and fails to adequately capture initial degenerative changes. Emerging quantitative MRI techniques offer a solution. Specifically, T2* mapping images water mobility in the macromolecular network, and our preliminary ex vivo work shows high predictability of the disc's glycosaminoglycan content (s-GAG) and residual mechanics. The present study expands upon this work to predict the biochemical and biomechanical properties in vivo and assess their relationship with both age and Pfirrmann grade. Eleven asymptomatic subjects (range: 18–62 yrs) were enrolled and imaged using a 3T MRI scanner. T2-weighted images (Pfirrmann grade) and quantitative T2* maps (predict s-GAG and residual stress) were acquired. Surface maps based on the distribution of these properties were generated and integrated to quantify the surface volume. Correlational analyses were conducted to establish the relationship between each metric of disc health derived from the quantitative T2* maps with both age and Pfirrmann grade, where an inverse trend was observed. Furthermore, the nucleus pulposus (NP) signal in conjunction with volumetric surface maps provided the ability to discern differences during initial stages of disc degeneration. This study highlights the ability of T2* mapping to noninvasively assess the s-GAG content, residual stress, and distributions throughout the entire disc, which may provide a powerful diagnostic tool for disc health assessment.

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