Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), ormagnetic resonance tomography (MRT) is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to visualize internal structures of the body in detail. MRI makes use of the property of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to image nuclei of atoms inside the body.
An MRI scanner is a device in which the patient lies within a large, powerful magnet where the magnetic field is used to align the magnetization of some atomic nuclei in the body, and radio frequency fields to systematically alter the alignment of this magnetization. This causes the nuclei to produce a rotating magnetic field detectable by the scanner—and this information is recorded to construct an image of the scanned area of the body. Magnetic field gradients cause nuclei at different locations to rotate at different speeds. By using gradients in different directions 2D images or 3D volumes can be obtained in any arbitrary orientation.
MRI provides good contrast between the different soft tissues of the body, which makes it especially useful in imaging the brain, muscles, the heart, and cancers compared with other medical imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT) or X-rays. Unlike CT scans or traditional X-rays, MRI does not use ionizing radiation.
Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) is used to measure the levels of different metabolites in body tissues. The MR signal produces a spectrum of resonances that correspond to different molecular arrangements of the isotope being "excited". This signature is used to diagnose certain metabolic disorders, especially those affecting the brain, and to provide information on tumor metabolism.
Magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging (MRSI) combines both spectroscopic and imaging methods to produce spatially localized spectra from within the sample or patient. The spatial resolution is much lower (limited by the available SNR), but the spectra in each voxel contains information about many metabolites. Because the available signal is used to encode spatial and spectral information, MRSI requires high SNR achievable only at higher field strengths (3 T and above). Functional MRI (fMRI) measures signal changes in the brain that are due to changing neural activity.
Real-time MRI refers to the continuous monitoring ("filming") of moving objects in real time. While many different strategies have been developed over the past two decades, a recent development reported a real-time MRI technique based on radial FLASH and iterative reconstruction that yields a temporal resolution of 20 to 30 milliseconds for images with an in-plane resolution of 1.5 to 2.0 mm. The new method promises to add important information about diseases of the joints and the heart. In many cases MRI examinations may become easier and more comfortable for patients.
A number of features of MRI scanning can give rise to risks.
These include:

  • Powerful magnetic fields
  • Radio waves
  • Cryogenic liquids
  • Noise
  • Claustrophobia.

In addition, in cases where MRI contrast agents are used, these also typically have associated risks.

Contrast agents

The most commonly used intravenous contrast agents are based on chelates of gadolinium. In general, these agents have proved safer than the iodinated contrast agents used in X-ray radiography or CT. Anaphylactoid reactions are rare, occurring in approx. 0.03–0.1%.Of particular interest is the lower incidence of nephrotoxicity, compared with iodinated agents, when given at usual doses—this has made contrast-enhanced MRI scanning an option for patients with renal impairment, who would otherwise not be able to undergo contrast-enhanced CT.
Although gadolinium agents have proved useful for patients with renal impairment, in patients with severe renal failure requiring dialysis there is a risk of a rare but serious illness, nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, that may be linked to the use of certain gadolinium-containing agents. The most frequently linked is gadodiamide, but other agents have been linked too.[  Although a causal link has not been definitively established, current guidelines in the United States are that dialysis patients should only receive gadolinium agents where essential, and that dialysis should be performed as soon as possible after the scan to remove the agent from the body promptly. In Europe, where more gadolinium-containing agents are available, a classification of agents according to potential risks has been released. Recently a new contrast agent named gadoxetate, brand name Eovist (US) or Primovist (EU), was approved for diagnostic use: this has the theoretical benefit of a dual excretion path.


No effects of MRI on the fetus have been demonstrated. In particular, MRI avoids the use of ionizing radiation, to which the fetus is particularly sensitive. However, as a precaution, current guidelines recommend that pregnant women undergo MRI only when essential. This is particularly the case during the first trimester of pregnancy, as organogenesis takes place during this period. The concerns in pregnancy are the same as for MRI in general, but the fetus may be more sensitive to the effects—particularly to heating and to noise. However, one additional concern is the use of contrast agents; gadolinium compounds are known to cross the placenta and enter the fetal bloodstream, and it is recommended that their use be avoided.
Despite these concerns, MRI is rapidly growing in importance as a way of diagnosing and monitoring congenital defects of the fetus because it can provide more diagnostic information than ultrasound and it lacks the ionizing radiation of CT. MRI without contrast agents is the imaging mode of choice for pre-surgical, in-utero diagnosis and evaluation of fetal tumors, primarily teratomas, facilitating open fetal surgery, other fetal interventions, and planning for procedures (such as the EXIT procedure) to safely deliver and treat babies whose defects would otherwise be fatal.

Claustrophobia and discomfort

MRI scans can be unpleasant. Older closed bore MRI systems have a fairly long tube or tunnel. The part of the body being imaged must lie at the center of the magnet, which is at the absolute center of the tunnel. Because scan times on these older scanners may be long (occasionally up to 40 minutes for the entire procedure), people with even mild claustrophobia are sometimes unable to tolerate an MRI scan without management. Some modern scanners have larger bores (up to 70 cm) and scan times are shorter. This means that claustrophobia could be less of an issue, and additional patients may now find MRI to be a tolerable procedure.
Nervous patients may still find the following strategies helpful:

  • Advance preparation
    • visiting the scanner to see the room and practice lying on the table
    • visualization techniques
    • chemical sedation
    • general anesthesia
  • Coping while inside the scanner
  • having a loved one in the room to hold hand, reassure them, etc.
  • holding a "panic button"
  • closing eyes as well as covering them (e.g. washcloth, eye mask)
  • listening to music on headphones or watching a movie, using mirror-glasses and a projection screen or via a head-mounted display, while in the machine.

Many newer MRI systems place a diagonal mirror above the eyes to allow the patient to look down the tunnel rather than at the bore wall immediately above their face.
Alternative scanner designs, such as open or upright systems, can also be helpful where these are available. Though open scanners have increased in popularity, they produce inferior scan quality because they operate at lower magnetic fields than closed scanners. However, commercial 1.5 tesla open systems have recently become available, providing much better image quality than previous lower field strength open models.
For babies and young children chemical sedation or general anesthesia are the norm, as these subjects cannot be instructed to hold still during the scanning session. Obese patients and pregnant women may find the MRI machine to be a tight fit. Pregnant women may also have difficulty lying on their backs for an hour or more without moving.

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