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ArrowMore Than Skin Deep: MRI Research at the MagLab

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By Kristen Coyne

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which examine soft tissue in the body using strong magnets and radio frequencies, were first used in the 1970s. Since then, MRI technology has mushroomed; the machines are available in many hospitals, and some 10 million people a year get an MRI scan, according to the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. It is a safe, non-invasive way for doctors to peer beyond the skin, especially useful for diagnosing cancers or brain and cardiovascular problems.

900 MHz magnet
Images of a rat brain. The animal is being examined in the 900 MHz magnet in the background.

Developed from the more established field of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), MRI is still a young technology. The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is at the forefront of MRI technique development. In fact, the lab's 900 MHz NMR magnet is the strongest MRI scanner in the world. Nobody reading this article, however, would qualify as a patient: The machine accommodates only the most petite patients – mice, birds, hamsters and rats.

If you think that's a drawback, think again: What the machine lacks in space, it makes up for in power. Scientists measure magnetic field in units called tesla. A fridge magnet, for example, generates a field of about 0.01 tesla. A typical hospital MRI magnet is about 1.5 tesla. Our 900 MHz magnet is much, much stronger: 21.1 Tesla. To make a stronger MRI magnet, you narrow the width of the bore – the middle of the magnet, where the patient goes. That's why the bore of our super magnet is so narrow (105 mm wide, or about 4 inches) compared with much weaker hospital MRIs.

Humans may not fit into this MRI machine, but they will surely benefit from it. Scientists use it to study a wide array of human diseases and disorders, from Parkinson's to cancer, from muscle degeneration to Lou Gehrig's disease, from brain injuries to drug abuse. Standing in for human patients are animal models, ranging in size from fruit flies to rats. In this article you can read about some of the research done is this amazing instrument, and how people stand to gain from the work done by these scientists and their furry, feathered or even antennaed patients.

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