History of MRI scanners

MRI or magnetic resonance imaging was first used as a tool for medical diagnosis in the latter part of the 20th Century. It is based on the scientific process Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR was discovered in the 1930’s by Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell, who found that magnetic fields and radio waves could manipulate the alignment of atoms and reveal the properties of chemical compounds. Bloch and Purcell were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics, for the discovery, in 1952.

MRI is the safest method of looking into the human body because it doesn’t use harmful rays or chemicals to reveal the parts of the body. It also provides the most detailed picture of the body compared to computed tomography (CT) scans or X-rays.

MRI was first patented in the US as “Apparatus and Method for detecting cancer in the tissue” by Doctor Raymond Damadian in 1974. The first full body Scanner was built by Dr Damadian in 1977, he named the machine Indomitable.

Over the years, technology for visualising the images generated by MRI scanners has improved greatly. In the 1970s and 80’s the development in MRI helped see abnormalities in the brain and spine, which had always eluded CT scanners.

In 2003 the Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to two scientists for their discoveries on the field of MRI. Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield were given the prize for their work in the development of imaging of MRI scanners.

Lauterbur’s work developed a technique which added a second magnetic field to the MRI scanner. This added a second dimension to the images. Gradients in one of the magnetic fields were used to determine the differences in human tissue. This meant that MRI scans could be more detailed.

Mansfield’s work was carried out in the UK at Nottingham University. His work first started in 1967 which mathematically developed the analysing capabilities of MRI. It further developed the 2 dimensional imaging discovered by Lauterbur by improving the speed of the imaging. It also made functional MRI (fMRI) possible.

In 1992 various scientific faculties submitted papers for the use of fMRI, showing the blood flow to various parts of the brain. This technique is particularly useful as it shows the neural activity in the brain.

There is still great scope for development of MRI scanners. Scanning time is now very fast and 3D scanning is extremely useful for detecting hard-to-find cancers of the pancreas and visualising unborn foetuses.

The use of MRI scanners has grown rapidly since the beginning of the 1980s. By 2002 there were around 22,000 scanners worldwide, performing over 60 million examination. This is growing year on year as are developments in technique.

In the future, new developments in the field of MRI are almost endless. The use of MRI in detecting heart conditions is being perfected. Advancement in technology is making hand-held scanners more likely. The technique of fMRI is also in its infancy and as the technique is developed, the way we see the brain will become more detailed which could help to understand a lot more about mental illness.