Futuristic MRI Machine and the secrets of Human Biochemistry
European researchers are constructing an enormous new magnetic resonance imaging device that will be able to take pictures of the human brain with more clarity than ever before.¬† This 11.75 Tesla monstrosity will have a field strength that is 230,000 times more powerful than the earth‚Äôs magnetic field.¬† Comparatively the current MRI record holder used for human research is 9.4 Tesla and the majority of clinical machines are significantly less than that (usually 1 to 3 Tesla).
The tremendous field will be generated by 158 km of¬† niobium-titanium superconducting wires weighing nearly 70 tons in total.¬† The total weight of the magnet when finished will be approximately 150 tons.¬† When turned on, 1500 amps will flow through chilled coils operating at 1.8 degrees Kelvin above absolute zero.¬† That‚Äôs about as cold as parts of the Large Hadron Collider are kept at. ¬† This low temperature can be reached by immersing the coils in several thousand liters of superfluid helium.¬† This equipment is necessary to cover a¬† larger imaging volume than what is used in most high field animal scanners.¬† The opening for the machine will be 80 cm in diameter so as to allow an entire body to enter.
The shielding for this device will utilize 60 km of coiled wires to generate a counter field that can cancel out the main one.¬† This innovation will save thousands of tons of iron that would normally be required for the task.¬†¬† You obviously wouldn‚Äôt want the machine exerting its effect on other rooms in the building. Maintaining the homogeneity of this large a field requires some clever ingenuity as well. This project has had quite a few other technical challenges to overcome, but scientist have met them head on.
A 17 Tesla MRI is in already use for studying small animals, but going above 12 Tesla‚Äôs for human research may be exceedingly difficult from an engineering standpoint. The 11.75 apparatus, however, should enable scientists to witness metabolic processes in the body and make many new discoveries that were previously impossible.¬† It will have the power to visualize groups of neurons within the brain.¬† The implications for this technology are immense.¬† The amount of brain disorders in the world are staggering.¬† MRI‚Äôs have already been invaluable for neuroscientists who study the mind and this will continue the quest for a complete understanding of our own biochemistry.
Several Neurospin researchers are working to synthesize novel contrast agents for molecular imaging. Others are developing advanced software and machine learning algorithms that will be able to analyze the large amount of data that the machine will create. Obviously any way to amplify the appliance will be explored and exploited to maximum effect. By 2014 one researcher has claimed that brain mapping capabilities could be pushed to 20 microns.¬† At this level of detail a wiring diagram (connectome) can be synthesized.
What does the future portend for an MRI like this?¬† The expense will obviously limit the potential significantly.¬† Seeing as it is only a single machine, the amount of work it will accomplish will be small in comparison to worldwide research.¬† However, scientists should be able to gain new insights into psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia or depression.¬† It could also allow for a better understanding of the progression of neurodegerative disorders such as Alzheimer‚Äôs and Parkinson‚Äôs disease.¬† Another possibility is to witness neuronal damage after a person undergoes a stroke.¬† New treatments will likely be made available on the basis of what this contraption uncovers.
Two areas that have drawn skepticism from many in the fMRI research community are lie detection and supposed ‚Äúmind reading‚ÄĚ capabilities of the technology.¬† In the past scientists have been able to decode what kind of image a person was looking at using an fMRI and machine learning algorithms.¬† fMRI has also been utilized to read a person‚Äôs memories to a very limited extent.¬† Legal experts have recently questioned its ability to be used as evidence in a courtroom.¬† However, the MRI will likely mature significantly in the coming decades ahead.¬† Even the most skeptical neuroscientists may be surprised at the possibilities that crop up with the right kind of neurotechnology.¬† Unlocking the secrets of the mind may bring about some transformative societal changes that we will have to grapple with as time goes forward.
Researchers expect to finish installing the machine by the end of 2012.¬† It will be located in the Neurospin laboratories near Paris.¬† It should begin taking pictures in 2013.