Advances in MRI hold great promise for diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed, cross-sectional images of the organs and tissues within the body. This non-invasive method helps identify anomalies of the brain and spinal cord. Hospitals routinely use MRI machines with field strengths of 1.5 Tesla or 3 Tesla (T). The stronger the magnetic field, the greater the signal-to-noise ratio, which means the body can be imaged either at greater resolution, or at the same resolution, but faster.

Dr. Kamil Ugurbil, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair of Radiology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and his colleagues have been leading an effort to develop the world’s first whole-body human scanner operating above 10 Tesla (10 T).  Their 10.5 T model, which is currently undergoing safety testing in conjunction with the FDA, will allow clinicians to study carbon, phosphorus and sodium levels in cell nuclei, brain energetics, treatment progression and even the biomechanics of aging. The scanners offer detail that was once seen only in thinly sliced postmortem samples imaged by powerful microscopes.

Scanners operating at 7 T or above will enable scientists to study brain anatomy, brain structure and brain activity with much higher resolution. They hold great promise for better understanding and treatment of neurological diseases:

  • Researchers can now view the six layers of the cerebral cortex, the 3-millimetre-thick outer region of the brain that is responsible for humans’ high level of cognition. This allows them to measure the relative activity in different layers, which can reveal how that information is travelling.
  • If MRI could measure brain activity at a columnar level, scientists could learn more about the columnar organization of the brain, which is thought to carry out computations. Existing MRI machines cannot measure this neuronal activity directly.
  • Deep-brain stimulation, which has been used to treat many people with Parkinson’s disease, is often administered by inserting an electrode into the subthalamic nucleus, part of the basal ganglia deep inside the brain. MRI is used to help surgeons position the electrode. Using 7 T scanners make it easier for surgeons to position the electrodes accurately on their first attempt.
  • Scans done with 7 T machines have already revealed more about the symptoms and progression of multiple sclerosis. They also allow scientists to spot lesions in areas where they previously had not been observed, including the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area responsible for executive function and attention.

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