Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been a commonly used medical technology since the 1970s. MRI machines take images of soft tissues in the body so that physicians can identify injuries such as a torn ligament or a concussion. MRIs are often critical for early diagnosis of potentially life-threatening injuries. Because they are huge, costly machines, they are usually not located outside of a traditional hospital, such as in military field hospitals, ambulances, and sports arenas. Soldiers wounded in battle must be flown to a large hospital to get an MRI, and many underdeveloped countries do not have MRI machines. A smaller, more portable, less expensive MRI machine could expand the ability to diagnose more people quickly.
MRIs work by generating radio waves from water molecules in the body using a very powerful magnetic field. The process relies on a magnet, which weighs several tons. Researchers in different parts of the country are working to build a less powerful, but still effective, MRI machine. For the team at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Boston, this means working with professionals from the fields of machining, electronics, and advanced computing to build a prototype out of wires, magnets, and circuits that uses two vertical walls with thin magnets woven in. The prototype is combined with software that allows the magnetic field to change rapidly and produce radio waves. These waves are about 500 times weaker than what is used in the standard MRI, but are capable of providing images of our bodies that can help guide diagnosis. This MRI has a weaker resolution and cannot provide as much detail, but can still provide the quality of images that can identify bleeds in the brain, damage from stroke, and tumors, among other injuries. The researchers estimate that the cost could come down from millions of dollars to around $50,000 for the smaller machine.
Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory are also experimenting with ultra-low field magnetic resonance imaging to create images of the brain that can be used in military hospitals or remote villages in developing countries. To get the images at such low fields, they are using sensitive detectors called Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices (SQUIDs). Los Alamos National Laboratory specializes in nuclear security and has unique capabilities in imaging that are typically used for research in detection – such as detecting cracks and voids in weapons or the technology that can detect bombs in airports. The lab figured out that the same technology that can be used in airports has health care applications. But, interference challenges need to be refined before the portable MRI can be ready for mainstream use. Common items like cars and power lines create magnetic fields, and the team is working on a simple, light way to shield the device from outside magnetic fields.
Analysis: We have seen the miniaturization of technology in our own lives – from the giant computers used by very few in the 1940s and 1950s, that over the years led to the tablets and smartphones many of us depend on every day. New materials and innovations will likely lead to additional miniaturization of medical equipment in the hospital and home. Innovators in this field are also creating microneedles to improve eye surgery and drug delivery. Research into new medical-grade biocompatible materials are leading to wearables and implantables being developed from materials that are sweat-proof, resistant to movement, and are comfortable and safe. Biosensors included in rapidly shrinking wearables and medical devices allow consumers and clinicians to monitor and track more aspects of patients’ health, enabling earlier intervention—and even prevention—in a way that is much less intrusive to patients’ lives.
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