Stimulus-dependent hemodynamic response timing across the human subcortical-cortical visual pathway identified through high spatiotemporal resolution 7T fMRI


Recent developments in fMRI acquisition techniques now enable fast sampling with whole-brain coverage, suggesting fMRI can be used to track changes in neural activity at increasingly rapid timescales. When images are acquired at fast rates, the limiting factor for fMRI temporal resolution is the speed of the hemodynamic response. Given that HRFs may vary substantially in subcortical structures, characterizing the speed of subcortical hemodynamic responses, and how the hemodynamic response shape changes with stimulus duration (i.e. the hemodynamic nonlinearity), is needed for designing and interpreting fast fMRI studies of these regions. We studied the temporal properties and nonlinearities of the hemodynamic response function (HRF) across the human subcortical visual system, imaging superior colliculus (SC), lateral geniculate nucleus of the thalamus (LGN) and primary visual cortex (V1) with high spatiotemporal resolution 7 Tesla fMRI. By presenting stimuli of varying durations, we mapped the timing and nonlinearity of hemodynamic responses in these structures at high spatiotemporal resolution. We found that the hemodynamic response is consistently faster and narrower in subcortical structures than in cortex. However, the nonlinearity in LGN is similar to that in cortex, with shorter duration stimuli eliciting larger and faster responses than would have been predicted by a linear model. Using oscillatory visual stimuli, we tested the frequency response in LGN and found that its BOLD response tracked high-frequency (0.5 Hz) oscillations. The LGN response magnitudes were comparable to V1, allowing oscillatory BOLD signals to be detected in LGN despite the small size of this structure. These results suggest that the increase in the speed and amplitude of the hemodynamic response when neural activity is brief may be the key physiological driver of fast fMRI signals, enabling detection of high-frequency oscillations with fMRI. We conclude that subcortical visual structures exhibit fast and nonlinear hemodynamic responses, and that these dynamics enable detection of fast BOLD signals even within small deep brain structures when imaging is performed at ultra-high field.