Physics Investigation: Can We See What’s Going On Inside Our Bodies Without Surgery?

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Medical imaging has had a profound effect on the advancement of medicine as it enables noninvasive detailed inspection of internal organs of human body. One of the most preferred imaging techniques in modern clinical practice is the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which is extensively used in the diagnosis of brain tumors and deficiencies of the central nervous system. Since its first application by Lauterbur and Mansfield in the 70s, the MRI has gone a long way of technological improvement to achieve high resonance quality and economic design. While there is still a controversy around the contribution of scientists and engineers in the development of this invaluable tool, it is undeniable that the scientific input was crucial to achieve the high level of precision of the MRI.

The possibilities of modern MRIs are indeed impressive: going far beyond the detection of tumors, they are capable of in-utero cardiac imaging and even of imaging a single cell. This sophistication is the result of centuries-long efforts of scientists in diverse fields of research. The general mathematical transformation method of Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, the magnetic field experiments of Nikola Tesla, the precession equation of Sir Joseph Larmour were the early discoveries that made the development of the MRI possible (Geva 2006). In the mid 20th century, Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell developed the nuclear magnetic resonance, the technology that became fundamental for the MRI (Technology Quarterly 2003). They found out that, when placed in a magnetic field, nuclei absorbed electro-magnetic energy with its subsequent re-emission. This discovery triggered an avalanche of research on the possibilities of medical imaging. Investigating the potential of the nuclear magnetic resonance, Raymond Damadian reported in 1971 that it can be used to distinguish cancer from normal tissues in real time, which is invaluable for cancer diagnosis (Damadian 1971). However, it is Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield who are credited with the most important discovery in the development of the MRI. Working simultaneously, but without awareness of each other’s work, the researchers managed to describe the application of magnetic resonance gradients to locate NMR signals in space, which laid the ground for noninvasive and harmless examination of internal tissues of human bodies. Further development of the technique was facilitated by the chemist Richard Ernst who simplified the creation of two-dimensional images in MRI by positioning gradients in a rectangular grid (Technology Quarterly 2003). Due to these discoveries, the MRI could be effectively applied in clinical setting in the 1990s.

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Despite that MRI has reached the stage of its maturity, it continues to evolve in its functionality and quality (Sobol 2012). The discoveries in molecular biology foster the development of specific contrast agents that make it possible to observe normal and pathological biological processes within the body in much detail. Engineers and scientists cooperate to provide the newest MRIs with higher resolution, increased throughput and more economic design. In the past decades, new MRI techniques have been developed that enable the measurement of different aspects of hemodynamics and water diffusion, which are crucial for the identification and treatment of brain injuries (Koretsky 2004). Researchers are also constantly working on the enhancement of the range of MRI application, not only for treatment but also for prevention of diseases. Thus, a recent study has revealed that the MRI can be used to identify the inflammation of the pancreas that is conducive to type I diabetes (Gaglia et al. 2015). To achieve this result, the scientists adjusted MRI algorithm mapping that were initially intended for whole brain scanning. This finding has major implications for the early prevention of diabetes among people in the risk group. Over the last decade, extensive scientific research has made it possible to apply the MRI for neuroimaging of brain formation and mental disorders, cancer diagnosis and differentiation, identification of problems with liver, breast and prostate etc.

The advances in nanotechnology contribute to the creation of new classes of contrast-enhancing MRI agents (Matson & Wilson 2010). Better results are reached due to the higher relaxativity of nanomaterials as compared to traditional contrast agents; moreover, it is important that they are capable of cell internalization and have low toxicity. Therefore, scientists in the area of nanophysics contribute to the increase of the MRI quality by exploring the characteristics of nanomaterials and the possibilities of their application.

The development and application of the MRI is heavily dependent on the economic factor. MRI scanners have recently become one of the major sources of revenue for diverse health care providers, particularly in the USA. This is one of the reasons why health care institutions and organizations feel compelled to invest more resources in the scientific research to further advance and enhance the functions of the MRI. However, despite continuous development, the cost-effectiveness of the MRI remains rather low. Recent studies claim that the MRI creates a large economic burden for patients and healthcare system, while in many cases it can be successfully substituted with simpler and less expensive techniques, such as radiograph (Issa et al. 2014; Rudmik et al. 2014). High costs of the MRI as compared to other methods of medical imaging is one of the reasons why the researchers have focused on the improvement of brain imaging, cardiovascular imaging and breast cancer imaging as the main areas of its application, since the benefits of high precision of the MRI in this areas outweigh the shortcomings of its price (Taneja et al. 2009, Greenwood et al. 2013).

The MRI is a revolutionary technology that enables doctors and researchers to see the internal organs of human bodies in detail, with no risk of the patients’ ionization. While this technology was applied in clinical practice in the 1990s only, the way to it has been paved with the groundbreaking discoveries of the physics of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is the result of work of numerous researchers, who were either developing the basic mechanism of nuclear resonance or were devising the most efficient methods to localize the impulses in space. The quality and the range of application of the MRI are constantly being enhanced, due to theoretical and empirical scientific research. The major challenge that researchers need to face in the further development of the MRI is the increase of its cost-effectiveness, particularly when used with prevention purposes.

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  • Gaglia JL et al. 2015. Noninvasive mapping of pancreatic inflammation in recent-onset type-1 diabetes patients. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201424993.
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