Combining a megapowerful magnet, multiple detectors, and carefully tweaked contrast, a new MRI technique developed at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides an unprecedented look at the fine structure of the brain. Using an MRI machine equipped with a magnet more than twice as powerful as one in an ordinary device, the researchers created a way to measure the magnetic field changes caused by tissue properties to optimize contrast in the image. They were also able to compensate for the magnetic field fluctuations created by the patients’ breathing. The technique revealed never-before-seen patterns in the white matter and gray matter of the human brain.
Picking up on such differences may help researchers look more deeply into the brain’s subdivisions, allowing them to map it in greater detail. It may also bring about advances in diagnosing diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis, both of which involve abnormal iron accumulation in the brain. For patients, the new technique may mean that “you could more accurately—and maybe earlier—diagnose a disease,” says NIH physicist Jeff Duyn.
Only eight MRI machines this powerful exist in the United States, and all are housed in research, rather than clinical, settings. Each costs around $5 million, and that’s before the expense of setup—which includes installing 380 tons of shielding material to prevent every metal object in the building from being sucked into the magnet.
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