Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a method of creating images of the inside of opaque organs in living organisms as well as detecting the amount of bound water in geological structures. It is primarily used to demonstrate pathological or other physiological alterations of living tissues and is a commonly used form of medical imaging. MRI has also found many niche applications outside of the medical and biological fields such as rock permeability to hydrocarbons and certain non-destructive testing methods such as produce and timber quality characterization .
Magnetic resonance imaging was developed from knowledge gained in the study of nuclear magnetic resonance. The original name for the medical technology is nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), but the word nuclear is almost universally dropped. This is done to avoid the negative connotations of the word nuclear, and to prevent patients from associating the examination with radiation exposure. Scientists still use NMR when discussing non-medical devices operating on the same principles.
Medical MRI most frequently relies on the relaxation properties of excited hydrogen nuclei in water. When the object to be imaged is placed in a powerful, uniform magnetic field, the spins of the atomic nuclei within the tissue are all aligned in one of two opposite directions: parallel to the magnetic field or anti-parallel . While the proportion is nearly equal, slightly more are oriented parallel. The tissue is then briefly exposed to pulses of electromagnetic energy in a plane perpendicular to the magnetic field, causing some of the magnetically aligned hydrogen nuclei to assume a temporary non-aligned high-energy state. The frequency of the pulses is governed by the Larmor Equation.
As the high-energy nuclei relax and realign, they emit energy which is recorded to provide information about their environment. The realignment with the magnetic field is termed longitudinal relaxation and the time in milliseconds required for a certain percentage of the tissue nuclei to realign is termed "Time 1" or T1. This is the basis of T1-weighted imaging.
T2-weighted imaging relies upon local dephasing of spins following the application of the transverse energy pulse; the transverse relaxation time is termed "Time 2" or T2. Both T1- and T2-weighted images are acquired for most medical examinations. Often, a paramagnetic contrast agent, a gadolinium compound, is administered, and both pre-contrast T1-weighted images and post-contrast T1-weighted images are obtained.
In order to create the image, spatial information must be recorded along with the received tissue relaxation information. For this reason, magnetic fields with an intensity gradient are applied in addition to the strong alignment field to allow encoding of the position of the nuclei. A field with the gradient increasing in each of the three dimensional planes is applied in sequence. When received, the signals are recorded in a temporary memory termed K-space; this is the spatial frequency weighting in two or three dimensions of a real space object as sampled by MRI. The information is subsequently inverse Fourier transformed by a computer into real space to obtain the desired image. Detailed anatomical information results. Typical medical resolution is about 1 mm3, while research models can exceed 1 µm3.
In clinical practice, MRI is used to distinguish pathologic tissue (such as a brain tumor) from normal tissue. One of the advantages of an MRI scan is that, according to current medical knowledge, it is harmless to the patient. It utilizes strong magnetic fields and non-ionizing radiation in the radio frequency range. Compare this to CT scans and traditional X-rays which involve doses of ionizing radiation and may increase the chance of malignancy, expecially in children receiving multiple examinations.
While CT provides superior spatial resolution (the ability to distinguish two structures an arbitrarily small distance from each other as separate), MRI provides far better contrast resolution (the ability to distinguish the differences between two arbitrarily similar but not identical tissues). The basis of this ability is the complex library of pulse sequences that the modern medical MRI scanner includes, each of which is optimized to provide image contrast based on a particular property of the subject.
For example, with particular values of the echo time (TE) and the repetition time (TR), which are basic parameters of image acquisition, a sequence will take on the property of T2 weighting. On a T2 weighted scan, water and fluid-containing tissues are bright (most modern T2 sequences are actually fast T2 sequences, in which case fat is also bright). Damaged tissue tends to develop edema, which makes a T2 weighted sequence sensitive for pathology, and generally able to distinguish pathologic tissue from normal tissue. With the addition of an additional radiofrequency pulse and some more manipulation of the magnetic gradients, a T2 weighted sequence can be converted to a FLAIR (fluid light attenuation inversion recovery) sequence, in which free water now is dark, but edematous tissues remain bright. This sequence, in particular, is currently the most sensitive way to evaluate the brain for changes of multiple sclerosis.
The typical MRI examination typically consists of 5-20 sequences, each of which are chosen to provide a particular type of information about the subject tissues. This information is then synthesized by the interpreting radiologist into a report for the clinical physician treating the patient.
The presence of a ferromagnetic foreign body (such as shell fragments) in the subject, or a metallic implant (like surgical prostheses , or pacemakers) can present a (relative or absolute) contraindication towards MRI scanning: interaction of the magnetic and radiofrequency fields with such an object can lead to mechanical or thermal injury, or failure of an implanted device.
As a result of the very high strength of the magnetic field needed to produce scans (frequently up to 60,000 times the earth's own magnetic field effects), there are several incidental safety issues addressed in MRI facilities. Missile-effect accidents, where ferromagnetic objects are attracted to the center of the magnet, have resulted in injury and death. It is for this reason that common metallic objects and devices are prohibited in proximity to the MRI scanner, with nonmagnetic "MRI-safe" versions of many of these objects typically retained by the scanning facility.
Many safety issues, including the potential for biostimulation device interference, movement of ferromagnetic bodies and incidental localized heating have been addressed in the American College of Radiology's 'White Paper on MR Safety' which was originally published in 2002 and expanded in 2004.
Specialised MRI scans
Diffusion MRI measures the diffusion of water molecules in biological tissues. Following an ischemic stroke, brain cells die, trapping water molecules inside them (cellular pumps are no longer functioning). The resultant areas of restricted diffusion are detectable by diffusion weighted imaging (DWI). This finding appears within 5-10 minutes of the onset of stroke symptoms (as compared with computed tomography, which often does not detect changes of acute infarct for up to 4-6 hours) and remains for up to two weeks. As such, DWI sequences are extraordinarily sensitive for acute stroke.
Diffusion MRI is also a tool to study connections in the brain. In an isotropic medium (inside a glass of water for example) water molecules naturally move according to Brownian motion. In biological tissues however the diffusion is very often anisotropic. For example a molecule inside the axon of a neuron has a low probability to cross a myelin membrane. Therefore the molecule will move principally along the axis of the neural fiber. Conversely if we know that molecules locally diffuse principally in one direction we can make the assumption that this corresponds to a set of fibers. Diffusion MRI for this application is still at the research stage. Identifying fibers on diffusion MRI is called tractography.
Magnetic resonance angiography
Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) is used to generate pictures of the arteries, in order to evaluate them for stenosis (abnormal narrowing) or aneurysms (vessel wall dilatations, at risk of rupture). The main uses of MRA is to evaluate the arteries of the neck and brain, the thoracic and abdominal aorta, and the kidneys. A variety of techniques can be used to generate the pictures, such as administration of a paramagnetic contrast agent (such as gadolinium) or using a technique known as "flow-related enhancement" (e.g. 2D and 3D time-of-flight sequences), where the only signal on an image is due to blood which has recently moved into that plane.
Magnetic resonance spectroscopy
Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), also known as MRSI (MRS Imaging) and Volume Selective NMR Spectroscopy, is a technique which combines the spatially-addressable nature of MRI with the spectroscopically-rich information obtainable from nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). That is to say, MRI allows one to study a particular region within an organism or sample, but gives relatively little information about the chemical or physical nature of that region--its chief value is in being able to distinguish the properties of that region relative to those of surrounding regions. MR spectroscopy, however, provides a wealth of chemical information about that region, as would an NMR spectrum of that region.
Functional MRI (fMRI) measures signal changes in the brain that are due to changing neural activity. The brain is scanned at low resolution but at a rapid rate (typically once every 2-3 seconds). Increases in neural activity cause changes in the MR signal via a mechanism called the BOLD (blood oxygen level-dependent) effect. Increased neural activity causes an increased demand for oxygen, and the vascular system actually overcompensates for this, increasing the amount of oxygenated hemoglobin ("haemoglobin" in British English) relative to deoxygenated hemoglobin. Because deoxygenated hemoglobin reduces MR signal, the vascular response leads to a signal increase that is related to the neural activity. The precise nature of the relationship between neural activity and the BOLD signal is a subject of current research. The BOLD effect also allows for the generation of high resolution 3D maps of the venous vasculature within neural tissue.
Because of the lack of harmful effects on the patient and the operator, MR is well suited for "interventional radiology", where the images produced by an MRI scanner are used to guide a minimally invasive procedure intraoperatively and/or interactively. However, the non-magnetic environment required by the scanner, and the strong magnetic radiofrequency and quasi-static fields generated by the scanner hardware require the use of specialized instruments. Often required is the use of an "open bore" magnet which permits the operating staff better access to patients during the operation. Such open bore magnets are often lower field magnets, typically in the 0.2 tesla range, which decreases their sensitivity but also decreases the Radio Frequency power potentially absorbed by the patient during a protracted operation.
Radiation Therapy Simulation
Because of MRI's superior imaging of soft tissues, it is now being utilized to specifically locate tumors within the body in preparation for radiation therapy treatments. For therapy simulation, a patient is placed in specific, reproduceable, body position and scanned. The MRI system then computes the precise location, shape and orientation of the tumor mass, correcting for any spatial distortion inherent in the system. The patient is then marked or tatooed with points which, when combined with the specific body position, will permit precise triangulation for radiation therapy.
Current Density Imaging
Current density imaging is a subbranch of MRI that endeavors to use the phase information from the MRI images to reconstruct current densities within a subject. Current density imaging works because electrical currents generate magnetic fields, which in turn affect the phase of the magnetic dipoles during an imaging sequence. To date no successful CDI has been performed using biological currents, however several studies have been published which involve applied currents through a pair of electrodes.
Nobel prize (2003)
Reflecting the fundamental importance and applicability of MRI in the medical field, Paul Lauterbur and Sir Peter Mansfield were awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries concerning MRI. Lauterbur discovered that gradients in the magnetic field could be used to generate two-dimensional images. Mansfield analyzed the gradients mathematically. The Nobel Committee ignored Raymond V. Damadian, who demonstrated in 1971 that MRI can detect cancer, and filed a patent for the first whole-body scanner. He successfully defended his patent against infringement by General Electric with an award of $129 million in 1997, and settled out of court for further millions from other MRI scanner manufacturers.
In recording the history of MRI, Mattson and Simon (1996) credit Damadian with describing the concept of whole-body NMR scanning, as well as discovering the NMR tissue relaxation differences that made this feasible. In 2001, the Lemelson-MIT program bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Dr Damadian as "the man who invented the MRI scanner".
It is still not clear if Damadian's method of detecting cancer is working, and it is not used in modern MRI imaging and diagnostics. His description of a whole body scanner only concerned itself with searching the body for cancer, and does not discuss the use of the data for generating pictures showing different tissues. The procedure as described would take a very long time to perform. There is a big difference between this scanner and contemporary MRI machines.
- James Mattson and Merrill Simon. The Pioneers of NMR and Magnetic Resonance in Medicine: The Story of MRI. Jericho & New York: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1996. ISBN 0961924314.