Diffusion functional MRI (DfMRI) reveals neuronal activation even when neurovascular coupling is abolished, contrary to blood oxygenation level—dependent (BOLD) functional MRI (fMRI). Here, we show that the water apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) derived from DfMRI increased in specific rat brain regions under anesthetic conditions, reflecting the decreased neuronal activity observed with local field potentials (LFPs), especially in regions involved in wakefulness. In contrast, BOLD signals showed nonspecific changes, reflecting systemic effects of the anesthesia on overall brain hemodynamics status. Electrical stimulation of the central medial thalamus nucleus (CM) exhibiting this anesthesia-induced ADC increase led the animals to transiently wake up. Infusion in the CM of furosemide, a specific neuronal swelling blocker, led the ADC to increase further locally, although LFP activity remained unchanged, and increased the current threshold awakening the animals under CM electrical stimulation. Oppositely, induction of cell swelling in the CM through infusion of a hypotonic solution (−80 milliosmole [mOsm] artificial cerebrospinal fluid [aCSF]) led to a local ADC decrease and a lower current threshold to wake up the animals. Strikingly, the local ADC changes produced by blocking or enhancing cell swelling in the CM were also mirrored remotely in areas functionally connected to the CM, such as the cingulate and somatosensory cortex. Together, those results strongly suggest that neuronal swelling is a significant mechanism underlying DfMRI.
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