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Other Medical Uses of Magnetic Fields

Other Medical Uses of Magnetic Fields

Currents in nerve cells and the heart create magnetic fields like any other currents. These can be measured but with some difficulty since their strengths are about \({\text{10}}^{-6}\) to \({\text{10}}^{-8}\) less than the Earth’s magnetic field. Recording of the heart’s magnetic field as it beats is called a magnetocardiogram (MCG), while measurements of the brain’s magnetic field is called a magnetoencephalogram (MEG). Both give information that differs from that obtained by measuring the electric fields of these organs (ECGs and EEGs), but they are not yet of sufficient importance to make these difficult measurements common.

In both of these techniques, the sensors do not touch the body. MCG can be used in fetal studies, and is probably more sensitive than echocardiography. MCG also looks at the heart’s electrical activity whose voltage output is too small to be recorded by surface electrodes as in EKG. It has the potential of being a rapid scan for early diagnosis of cardiac ischemia (obstruction of blood flow to the heart) or problems with the fetus.

MEG can be used to identify abnormal electrical discharges in the brain that produce weak magnetic signals. Therefore, it looks at brain activity, not just brain structure. It has been used for studies of Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. Advances in instrumentation to measure very small magnetic fields have allowed these two techniques to be used more in recent years. What is used is a sensor called a SQUID, for superconducting quantum interference device. This operates at liquid helium temperatures and can measure magnetic fields thousands of times smaller than the Earth’s.

Finally, there is a burgeoning market for magnetic cures in which magnets are applied in a variety of ways to the body, from magnetic bracelets to magnetic mattresses. The best that can be said for such practices is that they are apparently harmless, unless the magnets get close to the patient’s computer or magnetic storage disks. Claims are made for a broad spectrum of benefits from cleansing the blood to giving the patient more energy, but clinical studies have not verified these claims, nor is there an identifiable mechanism by which such benefits might occur.

PhET Explorations: Magnet and Compass

Ever wonder how a compass worked to point you to the Arctic? Explore the interactions between a compass and bar magnet, and then add the Earth and find the surprising answer! Vary the magnet’s strength, and see how things change both inside and outside. Use the field meter to measure how the magnetic field changes.

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