Magnetic Resonance Imaging - How MRI Works

How MRI Works

MRI machines make use of the fact that body tissue contains lots of water, and hence protons (1H nuclei), which get aligned in a large magnetic field. Each water molecule has two hydrogen nuclei or protons. When a person is inside the powerful magnetic field of the scanner, the average magnetic moment of many protons becomes aligned with the direction of the field. A radio frequency current is briefly turned on, producing a varying electromagnetic field. This electromagnetic field has just the right frequency, known as the resonance frequency, to be absorbed and flip the spin of the protons in the magnetic field. After the electromagnetic field is turned off, the spins of the protons return to thermodynamic equilibrium and the bulk magnetization becomes re-aligned with the static magnetic field. During this relaxation, a radio frequency signal (electromagnetic radiation in the RF range) is generated, which can be measured with receiver coils.

Information about the origin of the signal in 3D space can be learned by applying additional magnetic fields during the scan. This is the idea of K-space, 3d image compiled from multiple 2d images. This 3d image can also produce images in any plane of view. The image can be rotated and manipulated by the doctor to be better able to detect tiny changes of structures within the body. These fields, generated by passing electric currents through gradient coils, make the magnetic field strength vary depending on the position within the magnet. Because this makes the frequency of the released radio signal also dependent on its origin in a predictable manner, the distribution of protons in the body can be mathematically recovered from the signal, typically by the use of the inverse Fourier transform.

Protons in different tissues return to their equilibrium state at different relaxation rates. Different tissue variables, including spin density, T1 and T2 relaxation times, and flow and spectral shifts can be used to construct images. By changing the settings on the scanner, this effect is used to create contrast between different types of body tissue or between other properties, as in fMRI and diffusion MRI.

MRI contrast agents may be injected intravenously to enhance the appearance of blood vessels, tumors or inflammation. Contrast agents may also be directly injected into a joint in the case of arthrograms, MRI images of joints. Unlike CT, MRI uses no ionizing radiation and is generally a very safe procedure. Nonetheless the strong magnetic fields and radio pulses can affect metal implants, including cochlear implants and cardiac pacemakers. There are many electronically activated devices that have approval from the US FDA to permit MRI procedures in patients under highly specific MRI conditions (see In the case of cochlear implants, the US FDA has approved some implants for MRI compatibility. In the case of cardiac pacemakers, the results can sometimes be lethal, so patients with such implants are generally not eligible for MRI.

Since the gradient coils are within the bore of the scanner, there are large forces between them and the main field coils, producing most of the noise that is heard during operation. Without efforts to damp this noise, it can approach 130 decibels (dB) with strong fields (see also the subsection on acoustic noise).

MRI is used to image every part of the body, and is particularly useful for tissues with many hydrogen nuclei and little density contrast, such as the brain, muscle, connective tissue and most tumors.

MRI scans require a magnetic field with two properties, uniform field density and strength. The magnetic field cannot vary more than 1/10,000 of 1% and field strength ranges (depending on the scanner) from 0.2 to 3 teslas in strength in currently clinically used scanners, with research scanners investigating higher field strengths such as seven teslas. The lower field strengths can be achieved with permanent magnets, which are often used in "open" MRI scanners, for claustrophobic patients. Higher field strengths can be achieved only with superconducting magnets.

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