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Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is one of the most useful and rapidly growing medical imaging tools. It non-invasively produces two-dimensional and three-dimensional images of the body that provide important medical information with none of the hazards of x-rays. MRI is based on an effect called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in which an externally applied magnetic field interacts with the nuclei of certain atoms, particularly those of hydrogen (protons). These nuclei possess their own small magnetic fields, similar to those of electrons and the current loops discussed earlier in this tutorial.

When placed in an external magnetic field, such nuclei experience a torque that pushes or aligns the nuclei into one of two new energy states—depending on the orientation of its spin (analogous to the N pole and S pole in a bar magnet). Transitions from the lower to higher energy state can be achieved by using an external radio frequency signal to “flip” the orientation of the small magnets. (This is actually a quantum mechanical process. The direction of the nuclear magnetic field is quantized as is energy in the radio waves. We will return to these topics in later tutorials.) The specific frequency of the radio waves that are absorbed and reemitted depends sensitively on the type of nucleus, the chemical environment, and the external magnetic field strength. Therefore, this is a resonance phenomenon in which nuclei in a magnetic field act like resonators (analogous to those discussed in the treatment of sound in Oscillatory Motion and Waves and Physics of Hearing) that absorb and reemit only certain frequencies. Hence, the phenomenon is named nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

NMR has been used for more than 50 years as an analytical tool. It was formulated in 1946 by F. Bloch and E. Purcell, with the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physics going to them for their work. Over the past two decades, NMR has been developed to produce detailed images in a process now called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a name coined to avoid the use of the word “nuclear” and the concomitant implication that nuclear radiation is involved. (It is not.) The 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to P. Lauterbur and P. Mansfield for their work with MRI applications.

The largest part of the MRI unit is a superconducting magnet that creates a magnetic field, typically between 1 and 2 T in strength, over a relatively large volume. MRI images can be both highly detailed and informative about structures and organ functions. It is helpful that normal and non-normal tissues respond differently for slight changes in the magnetic field. In most medical images, the protons that are hydrogen nuclei are imaged. (About 2/3 of the atoms in the body are hydrogen.) Their location and density give a variety of medically useful information, such as organ function, the condition of tissue (as in the brain), and the shape of structures, such as vertebral disks and knee-joint surfaces. MRI can also be used to follow the movement of certain ions across membranes, yielding information on active transport, osmosis, dialysis, and other phenomena. With excellent spatial resolution, MRI can provide information about tumors, strokes, shoulder injuries, infections, etc.

An image requires position information as well as the density of a nuclear type (usually protons). By varying the magnetic field slightly over the volume to be imaged, the resonant frequency of the protons is made to vary with position. Broadcast radio frequencies are swept over an appropriate range and nuclei absorb and reemit them only if the nuclei are in a magnetic field with the correct strength. The imaging receiver gathers information through the body almost point by point, building up a tissue map. The reception of reemitted radio waves as a function of frequency thus gives position information. These “slices” or cross sections through the body are only several mm thick. The intensity of the reemitted radio waves is proportional to the concentration of the nuclear type being flipped, as well as information on the chemical environment in that area of the body. Various techniques are available for enhancing contrast in images and for obtaining more information. Scans called T1, T2, or proton density scans rely on different relaxation mechanisms of nuclei. Relaxation refers to the time it takes for the protons to return to equilibrium after the external field is turned off. This time depends upon tissue type and status (such as inflammation).

While MRI images are superior to x rays for certain types of tissue and have none of the hazards of x rays, they do not completely supplant x-ray images. MRI is less effective than x rays for detecting breaks in bone, for example, and in imaging breast tissue, so the two diagnostic tools complement each other. MRI images are also expensive compared to simple x-ray images and tend to be used most often where they supply information not readily obtained from x rays. Another disadvantage of MRI is that the patient is totally enclosed with detectors close to the body for about 30 minutes or more, leading to claustrophobia. It is also difficult for the obese patient to be in the magnet tunnel. New “open-MRI” machines are now available in which the magnet does not completely surround the patient.

Over the last decade, the development of much faster scans, called “functional MRI” (fMRI), has allowed us to map the functioning of various regions in the brain responsible for thought and motor control. This technique measures the change in blood flow for activities (thought, experiences, action) in the brain. The nerve cells increase their consumption of oxygen when active. Blood hemoglobin releases oxygen to active nerve cells and has somewhat different magnetic properties when oxygenated than when deoxygenated. With MRI, we can measure this and detect a blood oxygen-dependent signal. Most of the brain scans today use fMRI.

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