By:  STEM Contributor
October 8th, 2018

What is an MRI? This powerful technology turns 40 years old

The following essay is written by Sienna Ters of Santa Sabina College in Sydney and is a runner up in the 2018 UNSW Bragg Writing Prize. Sienna’s essay is responding to the theme of ‘Technology and Tomorrow’.


Celebrating 40 years of MRI technology, and why we need it more than ever

by Sienna Ters

Not so long ago, if you were seated across from your doctor and heard them utter the word ‘cancer’, it would have felt like a death sentence. But now, instead of asking ‘How long have I got to live?’, you are more likely to ask ‘What are we going to do about it?’

Early detection made possible

One of the best ways to beat cancer is to find it early, and it is here that we have to recognise the major impact that MRI technology has had on improving survival rates for cancer. Just over 40 years ago, the first human was imaged using MRI technology.

Since then, the technology has been widely taken up. In Australia, there are 14 MRIs for every million inhabitants, all used to provide doctors with clear images of what’s going on inside someone’s body.

X-rays fell short

Before the introduction of MRIs in 1980, X-rays were the main form of imaging and they are still useful for diagnosing broken bones, checking the condition of lungs and detecting some cancers. But if you thought an X-ray was sophisticated, try a high-resolution technology that scans molecules of water in the tissues of the body, something unachievable by an X-ray.

What is an MRI?

Short for Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the MRI scan is a scanning technique which uses both a magnetic field and radioactive waves in order to photograph your body’s interior.

The overarching aim of this technology is to diagnose conditions involving the soft tissues throughout the body. These issues can include tumours, damaged ligaments, joint or spinal injuries and internal organ diseases.

How does it work?

And how exactly does an MRI procedure work? It involves a sliding table on which the patient lays, and which approaches a large cylindrical tube.

Inside this tube, a magnet aids in developing forceful magnetic fields. These magnetic fields act upon the protons found in the water of soft tissues in the body. A computer uses these responses and organises them into image collections … complicated right?

Improving survival rates

I spoke with Solange Obeid, radiographer at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, and she explained that since its inception, the MRI has been used mainly for the early detection of cancers.

Early detection allows medical care before cancers spread and become more difficult to treat. Given that cancer now affects one in two Australians, this early detection has a wide-reaching impact on society.

In fact, cancer survival in Australia has improved by more than 20 per cent over the past 30 years – the majority of patients now survive cancer and death rates have decreased significantly. Since the 1970s, people are twice as likely to survive at least 10 years after being diagnosed.

The socio-economic gap

While Ms Obeid feels this is cause for celebration, she said it’s not so for all Australians. MRI scans can be expensive, with some patients having to pay up to $1000 for a scan, while others cannot afford them at all or can’t get access to a machine.

So, while the five-year survival rate for cancer in Australia is 65 per cent, it’s 13 per cent less for the most disadvantaged Australians.

Not just a diagnosis

Ms Obeid went on to explain that MRIs are not just used for cancer detection, but are now used far more widely, for example in picking up brain injuries for patients with MS, and for helping to analyse and treat patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Using the MRI, doctors can determine the part of the brain that is damaged and causing tremors in the body of a Parkinson’s patient. Using ultrasound technology, doctors have been able to successfully treat the patients and reduce symptoms such as tremors.

This, she said, is a precise example of how the technology is evolving to not only identify an issue, but assist in treatment as well.

The future of MRI technology

Today, the benefits of MRI technology are clear in aiding the detection and treatment of various medical issues, and the best news is that technology around MRIs is still developing.

One project is being undertaken at the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics in the US, which is developing Artificial Intelligence to examine MRI images and detect issues which a doctor or radiologist might miss, and then use this information to diagnose a patient, estimate survival and determine possible treatment.

So while there is a lot to celebrate with the success of MRIs over the last 40 years, there is also a lot to look forward to in terms of how the technology can continue to develop in the future.

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STEM Contributor

Author: STEM Contributor

This article was written by a STEM Contributor for Careers with STEM. To learn more, please visit our contact page.

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