MR imaging of the various stages of normal myelination during the first year of life


The normal process of myelination of the brain mainly occurs during the first year of life. This process as known from histology can be visualized by MRI. Because of the very long T1 and T2 of immature brain tissue it is necessary to use adjusted pulse sequences with a long TR in order to obtain sufficient tissue contrast. With long TR SE images five stages can be recognized in the process of normal myelination and brain maturation. During the first month of life long TR short TE SE images show what are believed to be myelinated structures by correlation with published histological studies with a high signal intensity, unmyelinated white matter with a low signal intensity and gray matter with an intermediate signal intensity. The signal intensity of unmyelinated and myelinated white matter is reversed on long TR long TE SE images. In the course of a few weeks the signal intensity of unmyelinated white matter becomes high and the signal intensity of myelinated white matter becomes low also on long TR short TE SE images. These changes are believed to be caused by a loss of water and a change in chemical composition of brain tissue just prior to the onset of a wave of myelination. With progression of myelination the signal intensity of white matter changes from high to intermediate to low. These changes result in stages of isointensity, first in the central parts of the brain, later in the peripheral parts. At the end of the first year the adult contrast pattern is reached in all parts of the brain. IR images are also able to depict the progress of myelination, but appear to be less sensitive to subtle changes in the degree of myelination. The precise normal values for the five stages depend on the magnetic field strength and the pulse sequences used.

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van der Knaap, M.S., Valk, J. MR imaging of the various stages of normal myelination during the first year of life. Neuroradiology 31, 459–470 (1990).

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Key words

  • Myelination
  • MR imaging
  • Scheme of normal values