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8/29/2019 MR spectroscopy | Radiology Reference Article | Radiopaedia.


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8/29/2019 MR spectroscopy | Radiology Reference Article |

MR spectroscopy
A.Prof Frank Gaillard ◉ ◈ et al.

MR spectroscopy (MRS) allows tissue to be interrogated for the presence and concentration of various metabolites. Grossman and Yousem said "If you need this to help you, go back to
page 1; everything except Canavan has low NAA, high choline" 1. This is perhaps a little harsh, however it is fair to say that MRS often does not add a great deal to an overall MR study
but does increase specificity, and may help in improving our ability to predict histological grade.

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Related pathology
History and etymology
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Cases and figures


The basic principle that enables MR spectroscopy (MRS) is that the distribution of electrons around an atom cause nuclei in different molecules to experience a slightly different
magnetic field. This results in slightly different resonant frequencies, which in turn return a slightly different signal. The technique is identical to that of nuclear magnetic resonance
(NMR) as used in analytical chemistry, but the community commonly refers to in vivo NMR as MRS to avoid confusion (and, arguably, the word "nuclear").

MR spectra can be acquired from any "NMR-active" nucleus, which is a nucleus possessing non-zero spin: protons, carbon-13 and phosphorus-31 are the most commonly encountered,
and in clinical practice essentially only proton spectra (which enable the resolution of metabolite profiles in vivo) are encountered. 31P is typically used to look at the ratio of adenosine
triphosphate (ATP) to phosphocreatine and other metabolites, and can be used to assess the energy charge of the cell.

If raw signal was processed then the spectra would be dominated by water, which would make all other spectra invisible. Water suppression is therefore part of any MRS sequence, either
via inversion recovery or chemical shift selective (CHESS). If water suppression is not successful then a general slope to the baseline can be demonstrated, changing the relative heights
of peaks.

Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is performed with a variety of pulse sequences. The simplest sequence consists of a 90 degree radiofrequency (RF) pulse, without any gradients,
with reception of the signal by the RF coil immediately after the single RF pulse.

Many sequences used for imaging can be used for spectroscopy also (such as the spin echo sequence). The important difference between an imaging sequence and a spectroscopy
sequence is that for spectroscopy, a read-out gradient is not used during the time the RF coil is receiving the signal from the person or object being examined. Instead of using the
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frequency information (provided by the read-out or frequency gradient) to provide spatial or positional information, the frequency information is used to identify different chemical 8/22
8/29/2019 MR spectroscopy | Radiology Reference Article |

compounds. This is possible because the electron cloud surrounding different chemical compounds shields the resonant atoms of spectroscopic interest to varying degrees depending on
the specific compound and the specific position in the compound. This electron shielding causes the observed resonance frequency of the atoms to slightly different and therefore
identifiable with MRS.


lactate: resonates at 1.33 ppm

lipids: resonates at 1.3 ppm
alanine: resonates at 1.48 ppm
N-acetylaspartate (NAA): resonates at 2.0 ppm
glutamine/glutamate: resonates at 2.2-2.4 ppm
GABA: resonates at 2.2-2.4 ppm
2-hydroxyglutarate: resonates at 2.25 ppm 6
citrate: resonates 2.6 ppm
creatine: resonates at 3.0 ppm
choline: resonates at 3.2 ppm
myo-inositol: resonates at 3.5 ppm
water resonates at 4.7 ppm

Less common Peaks

propylene glycol: resonates at 1.14 ppm

ethanol: resonates at 1.16 ppm
acetate: resonates at 1.9 ppm
acetone: resonates at 2.22 ppm
aceto-acetate: resonates at 2.29 ppm
succinate: resonates at 2.4 ppm
methylsulfonylmethane: resonates at 3.15 ppm
scyllo-inositol: resonates at 3.36 ppm
taurine: resonates at 3.4 ppm
glucose: resonates at 3.43 ppm and 3.8 ppm
mannitol: resonates at 3.78 ppm
lactate quartet: resonates at 4.11 ppm

NB: ppm = parts per million

Related pathology


MRS can help increase our ability to predict grade. As the grade increases, NAA and creatine decrease and choline, lipids and lactate increase.

In the setting of gliomas, choline will be elevated beyond the margins of contrast enhancement in keeping with cellular infiltration.
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8/29/2019 MR spectroscopy | Radiology Reference Article |
Non-glial tumors

May be difficult but in general non-glial tumors will have little, if any, NAA peak.

Radiation effects

Distinguishing radiation change and tumor recurrence can be problematic. In recurrent tumor choline will be elevated, whereas in radiation change, NAA, choline and creatine will all be

Ischemia and infarction

Lactate will increase as the brain switches to anaerobic metabolism. When infarction takes place then lipids are released and peaks appear.


As in all processes which destroy normal brain tissue, NAA is absent. Within bacterial abscess cavities, lactate, alanine, cytosolic acid and acetate are elevated/present.

Of note choline is low or absent in toxoplasmosis, whereas it is elevated in lymphoma, helping to distinguish the two.

White matter diseases

progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) may demonstrate elevated myoinositol

Canavan disease characteristically demonstrates elevated NAA

Hepatic encephalopathy

Markedly reduced myoinositol, and to a lesser degree choline. Glutamine is increased.

Mitochondrial disorders

Leigh syndrome: elevated choline, reduced NAA and occasionally elevated lactate


My ChoCrNaaLa (think of a new chocolate energy bar or something)

My: Myoinositol 3.5

Cho: Choline 3.2
Cr: Creatine 3.0
Naa: Naa 2.0
L: Lactate 1.3

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