Less Claustrophic MRI Machines on the Way?

February 18, 2009

Magnetic resonance imaging patients could get a little more breathing room if a retooling of the notoriously claustrophobic body-scanning machines takes hold.

MRI machines expose the body's molecules to a magnetic field, causing the molecules to generate their own magnetic field in response. Different types of tissues—bone, muscle, tumors—resonate differently, creating contrast.

Currently, for the MRI to work, radio frequency coils—which deliver the magnetic waves—must be nearly flush against a patient's skin—hence the confining scanner tubes.

But David Brunner, a physicist at the University of Zürich, and colleagues have seen early success in replacing the coils with an antenna up to 9.8 feet (3 meters) away from a patient.

The antenna transmits and receives the radio frequency waves, which are focused by a special conductive lining inside the MRI scanning tube.

"Very Promising"

The extra room "will usually be on the order of 15-20 centimeters [6-8 inches] in diameter, which really is a lot in terms of patient comfort," said study co-author Klaas Pruessmann, also of the University of Zürich.

What's more, the "traveling waves" transmitted by the antenna offer more uniform coverage of large body parts and greater detail, said study co-author Klaas Pruessmann, also of the University of Zürich.

The technology "is currently being explored in centers around the world, including many in the U.S., and early pre-clinical applications look very promising," Pruessmann said.

Peter Börnert, principal scientist at Philips Research Europe in Hamburg, Germany, called the new technique "very promising from a scientific point of view"—pointed out that several previous successful attempts to improve MRI in the lab have not yet made it to market.

The findings were reported online today in the journal Nature.

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