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Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI), Advantages and Potential Impact

Context: A team at the University of Hong Kong, led by Ed Wu, has developed a low-cost MRI scanner that could significantly improve access to this crucial diagnostic tool, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

About the Discovery of low-cost MRI Scanner

  • Cost Reduction: The new scanner costs around $22,000 (Rs 18.4 lakh), making it about 50 times cheaper than conventional 3-T MRI machines that can cost up to Rs 13 crore.
  • Simplified Design: The machine uses 0.05 T magnets, eliminating the need for shielded rooms and helium coolant. It can be plugged into standard wall outlets.
  • AI-Enhanced Imaging: A deep-learning algorithm compensates for the lower resolution of 0.05 T magnets by reducing noise and sharpening images.
  • Proven Efficacy: The scanner produced clear images of various organs and tissues in 30 healthy volunteers, comparable to those from 3-T machines.

Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI): An Overview

What is it?

  • MRI is a non-invasive imaging technique used to visualise soft tissues within the body (brain, muscles, organs, etc.).
  • It’s vital for diagnosing and monitoring cancer, neurological conditions, and more.

How does it work?

  • MRI utilises the magnetic properties of hydrogen atoms in the body to create detailed images of soft tissues.
  • The machine consists of a superconducting magnet, a device emitting radiofrequency pulses, and a detector.
  • Hydrogen atoms align with the magnetic field
  • Radio pulses excite these atoms, and their energy emission upon returning to a lower energy state is detected to form images.
Facts
  • MRI techniques were developed in the early 1970s, with significant advancements by Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield later in the decade, leading to commercial use.
  • Lauterbur and Mansfield were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2003 for their contributions.
  • MRI machine consists of a table designed to slide into the scanner which is made of several essential parts: a magnet, three gradient coils, and radiofrequency coils.

Pros of MRI

  • MRI is non-invasive and capable of imaging various body parts including the brain, cardiovascular system, and joints.
  • It is particularly useful for diagnosing conditions like cancer and neurological disorders.
  • The machine can produce detailed images from multiple angles without requiring patient movement, using gradient magnets.
  • MRI exploits differences in T1 relaxation times of hydrogen in water across different tissues, enhanced by contrast agents for clearer imaging.
  • It is considered safe as the magnetic fields do not have long-term effects on the body, although effects on pregnant women are less studied.

Cons of MRI

  • High costs: MRI machines are expensive, ranging from tens of lakhs to crores of rupees, making scans costly (often over ₹10,000 each in India).
  • Physical discomfort and potential issues for claustrophobic patients due to the need to remain still in a confined space during the scan.
  • Maintenance and operational costs are high due to the energy-intensive process needed to generate and maintain the strong magnetic fields.

Advantages of the Low-Cost MRI Scanner

  • Accessibility and Cost: Drastically reduces the financial barrier to medical imaging, particularly beneficial in low- and middle-income countries.
    • For instance: Conventional MRI scans can cost Rs 7,000-15,000, with waiting times of several months for cheaper options.
  • Portability and Ease of Use: Lightweight and portable, requiring no special power sources, which makes it suitable for remote or underserved areas.
  • Safety and Usability: Generates less noise, which could be advantageous when scanning children, and poses less risk of attracting metal objects, reducing accidents commonly associated with high-field MRI scanners.

Medical and Emergency Applications

  • Immediate Medical Assessment: Useful in emergencies for quick diagnostics to aid first responders and in traumatic accidents to assess injuries on-site.
  • Compatibility with Metal Implants: Produces fewer artefacts from metal implants, potentially leading to better diagnosis and less risk during scans.

Limitations and Ongoing Development

  • Resolution and Utility: While low-field magnets do not provide the same resolution as high-field magnets, they are still valuable in certain contexts.
  • Further Testing Needed: The necessity for additional testing in other centres to validate the findings and explore the compatibility with devices like pacemakers.

Potential Impact and Future Prospects

  • Complementary Use: Can complement existing high-field MRI machines in radiology departments, offering a balance between cost and functionality.
  • Healthcare Accessibility: Could revolutionise healthcare delivery by making essential diagnostic tools more accessible and affordable.

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