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Longitudinal relaxation (T1) contrast in MRI is important for studying brain morphology and is widely used in clinical applications. Although MRI only detects signals from water hydrogen (1H) protons (WPs), T1 contrast is known to be influenced by other species of 1H protons, including those in macromolecules (MPs), such as lipids and proteins, through magnetization transfer (MT) between WPs and MPs. This complicates the use and quantification of T1 contrast for studying the underlying tissue composition and the physiology of the brain.

MT contributes to T1 contrast to an extent that is generally dependent on MT kinetics, as well as the concentration and NMR spectral properties of MPs. However, the MP spectral properties and MT kinetics are both difficult to measure directly, as the signal from MPs is generally invisible to MRI. Therefore, to investigate MT kinetics and further quantify T1 contrast, we first developed a reliable way to indirectly measure the MP fraction and their exchange rate with WPs, with minimal dependence on the spectral properties of MPs. For this purpose, we used brief, high-power radiofrequency (RF) NMR excitation pulses to almost completely saturate the magnetization of MPs. Based on this, both MT kinetics and the contribution of MPs to T1 contrast through MT were studied. The thus obtained knowledge allowed us to subsequently infer the spectral properties of MPs by applying low-power, frequency-selective off-resonance RF pulses and measuring the offset-frequency dependent effect of MPs on the WP MRI signal. A two-pool exchange model was used in both cases to account for direct effects of the RF pulse on WP magnetization.

Consistent with earlier works using MRI at low-field and post-mortem analysis of brain tissue, our novel measurement approach found that MPs constitute an up to 27% fraction of the total 1H protons in human brain white matter, and their spectrum follows a super-Lorentzian line with a T2 of 9.6±0.6 μs and a resonance frequency centered at -2.58±0.05 ppm, at 7 T. T1 contrast was found to be dominated by MP fraction, with iron only modestly contributing even in the iron-rich regions of brain.