In aqueous systems with immobilized macromolecules, including biological tissues, the longitudinal spin relaxation of water protons is primarily induced by exchange-mediated orientational randomization (EMOR) of intra- and intermolecular magnetic dipole-dipole couplings. Starting from the stochastic Liouville equation, we have previously developed a rigorous EMOR relaxation theory for dipole-coupled two-spin and three-spin systems. Here, we extend the stochastic Liouville theory to four-spin systems and use these exact results as a guide for constructing an approximate multi-spin theory, valid for spin systems of arbitrary size. This so-called generalized stochastic Redfield equation (GSRE) theory includes the effects of longitudinal-transverse cross-mode relaxation, which gives rise to an inverted step in the relaxation dispersion profile, and coherent spin mode transfer among solid-like spins, which may be regarded as generalized spin diffusion. The GSRE theory is compared to an existing theory, based on the extended Solomon equations, which does not incorporate these phenomena. Relaxation dispersion profiles are computed from the GSRE theory for systems of up to 16 protons, taken from protein crystal structures. These profiles span the range from the motional narrowing limit, where the coherent mode transfer plays a major role, to the ultra-slow motion limit, where the zero-field rate is closely related to the strong-collision limit of the dipolar relaxation rate. Although a quantitative analysis of experimental data is beyond the scope of this work, it is clear from the magnitude of the predicted relaxation rate and the shape of the relaxation dispersion profile that the dipolar EMOR mechanism is the principal cause of water-1H low-field longitudinal relaxation in aqueous systems of immobilized macromolecules, including soft biological tissues. The relaxation theory developed here therefore provides a basis for molecular-level interpretation of endogenous soft-tissue image contrast obtained by the emerging low-field magnetic resonance imaging techniques.
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