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Evaluation of human cartilage endplate composition using MRI: Spatial variation, association with adjacent disc degeneration, and in vivo repeatability

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Cartilage endplate (CEP) biochemical composition may influence disc degeneration and regeneration. However, evaluating CEP composition in patients remains a challenge. We used T2* mapping from ultrashort echo-time (UTE) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is sensitive to CEP hydration, to investigate spatial variations in CEP T2* values and to determine how CEP T2* values correlate with adjacent disc degeneration. Thirteen human cadavers (56.4 ± 12.7 years) and seven volunteers (36.9 ± 10.9 years) underwent 3T MRI, including UTE and T1ρ mapping sequences. Spatial mappings of T2* values in L4-S1 CEPs were generated from UTE images and compared between subregions. In the abutting discs, mean T1ρ values in the nucleus pulposus were compared between CEPs with high vs low T2* values. To assess in vivo repeatability, precision errors in mean T2* values, and intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC) were measured from repeat scans. Results showed that CEP T2* values were highest centrally and lowest posteriorly. In the youngest individuals (<50 years), who had mild-to-moderately degenerated Pfirrmann grade II-III discs, low CEP T2* values associated with severer disc degeneration: T1ρ values were 26.7% lower in subjects with low CEP T2* values (P = .025). In older individuals, CEP T2* values did not associate with disc degeneration (P = .39-.62). Precision errors in T2* ranged from 1.7 to 2.6 ms, and reliability was good-to-excellent (ICC = 0.89-0.94). These findings suggest that deficits in CEP composition, as indicated by low T2* values, associate with severer disc degeneration during the mild-to-moderate stages. Measuring CEP T2* values with UTE MRI may clarify the role of CEP composition in patients with mild-to-moderate disc degeneration.

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