Radiotherapy is one of the most important treatment options against cancer. Irradiation of cancerous tissue either directly destroys the cancer cells or damages them such that they cannot reproduce. One side-effect of radiotherapy is that tumor-surrounding normal tissue is inevitably also irradiated, albeit at a lower dose. The resulting long-term damage can significantly affect cognitive performance and quality of life. Many studies investigated the effect of irradiation on normal-appearing brain tissues and some of these correlated imaging findings with functional outcome. This article provides an overview of the examination of radiation-induced injuries using conventional and enhanced MRI methods and summarizes conclusions about the underlying tissue changes. Radiation-induced morphologic, microstructural, vascular, and metabolic tissue changes have been observed, in which the effect of irradiation was evident in terms of decreased perfusion and neuronal health as well as increased diffusion and atrophy.
Radiotherapy is part of the standard treatment of most primary brain tumors. Large clinical target volumes and physical characteristics of photon beams inevitably lead to irradiation of surrounding normal brain tissue. This can cause radiation-induced brain injury. In particular, late brain injury, such as cognitive dysfunction, is often irreversible and progressive over time, resulting in a significant reduction in quality of life. Since 50% of patients have survival times greater than six months, radiation-induced side effects become more relevant and need to be balanced against radiation treatment given with curative intent. To develop adequate treatment and prevention strategies, the underlying cause of radiation-induced side-effects needs to be understood. This paper provides an overview of radiation-induced changes observed in normal-appearing brains measured with conventional and advanced MRI techniques and summarizes the current findings and conclusions. Brain atrophy was observed with anatomical MRI. Changes in tissue microstructure were seen on diffusion imaging. Vascular changes were examined with perfusion-weighted imaging and susceptibility-weighted imaging. MR spectroscopy revealed decreasing N-acetyl aspartate, indicating decreased neuronal health or neuronal loss. Based on these findings, multicenter prospective studies incorporating advanced MR techniques as well as neurocognitive function tests should be designed in order to gain more evidence on radiation-induced sequelae.