Law of attraction: the birth of MRI

From “mathemagic” to early diagnosis, discover the story of magnetic resonance imaging - know more commonly as MRI

Magnetic resonance machine and examinationFondazione Bracco

Magnetic Resonance: the law of attraction

Nuclear magnetic resonance, also known as NMR, or just MR, is a technique of non-invasive diagnostic imaging developed in the 1980s. Unlike to radiography, CT and nuclear medicine, MR does not use ionising radiation or radioactive substances.

A view of the Earth’s magnetic fieldFondazione Bracco

It is based on the use of radio waves and a powerful magnetic field, sometimes as much as 100,000 times greater than that of the Earth.

The appeal of this technique lies in its capacity to produce 3D images, which reveal the differences between muscle and tendon, or cartilage and bone.

How Does an MRI Work?Fondazione Bracco

How do MRI scans work?

Find out in this short video.

Joseph Fourier was a French mathematician and physicistFondazione Bracco

The “mathemagic” of Fourier 

The development of magnetic resonance would not have been possible without the mathematical principles of the complex equation called Fourier’s “transform”, introduced by Richard Ernst in 1975. This complex formula is one the most important ideas that have driven forward technological progress over the last 200 years. Without it, there would be no TV, telephone, radio transmission or computer. The “transform” decomposes a wave into its constituent parts and then recomposes it. The discovery of the “transform” is historically attributed to the brilliant French mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, who lived in the Napoleonic period. Orphaned at ten years old, he had an amazingly adventurous life. He was Napoleon’s friend and a pioneer in mathematics, physics, Egyptology and diplomacy.

Magnetic resonance machine and examinationFondazione Bracco

Hold your breath

The basic equipment for magnetic resonance is a large horizontal tube. In magnetic resonance examinations, which last some minutes, the patient is asked to lie on a table inside the scanner, and to remain relaxed and motionless for the duration of the examination.

Magnetic resonance machine and examinationFondazione Bracco

Sometimes, patients need to hold their breath, particularly in the case of a chest or abdomen examination.

During "functional" magnetic resonance, the patient is asked to react to requests or visual stimuli to verify his or her reactions, for example in the case of brain examinations.

MRI total body scanFondazione Bracco

MR examinations are programmed in a similar way to tomographic ones.

Once an image is ready, doctors must identify the specific depth and orientation of the “volume” that they want to study, taking into account its shape, dimensions, edges and position.

Examinations can take 15 minutes - 1 hour.

Magnetic resonance machine and examinationFondazione Bracco

The journey of discovery

First used in biochemical research in the early 1980s, magnetic resonance was only later employed for diagnosis. This was the result of a series of progressive discoveries made by numerous scientists, who from the 1940s onwards marked the stages of this innovation.

Isidor RabiFondazione Bracco

The first was the American physicist Isidor Rabi, who observed the effects of magnetic resonance.

The first magnetic resonance machine, designed by Raymond Vahan DamadianFondazione Bracco

The first MRI machine for the human body did not see the light of day until twenty years later, thanks to the American Raymond Vahan Damadian.

Felix BlochFondazione Bracco

In 1952 the physicists Felix Bloch and Edward Purcell conducted the first experiments on the interaction between a magnetic field and radio frequency.

The first magnetic resonance images, realised by Paul C. LauterburFondazione Bracco

The first magnetic resonance images, realised by Paul C. Lauterbur in 1973.

Magnetic resonance machine and examinationFondazione Bracco

The magnetic future

The principals of nuclear magnetic resonance are also applied in other fields. In chemistry magnetic resonance allows the determination of molecular structure and enables the study of chemical reactions. And the use of magnetic resonance imaging in a lie detector shows the cerebral regions activated by the answers of the subject. Magnetic resonance imaging is a technique that is continually and rapidly evolving: it will surely open new and unexpected opportunities for early diagnosis.

The first high-efficiency contrast agent for magnetic resonanceFondazione Bracco

Contrast enhancers

Magnetic resonance is a non-invasive examination.

The first Bracco high-efficiency contrast agent for magnetic resonance by Andrea FerrarisFondazione Bracco

The use of contrast agents - substances that highlight particular parts of the body more than others - improves the quality of the images obtained.

This helps to reveal physiological and pathological conditions that would otherwise not be visible.

Supra-aortic vessels in magnetic resonance, reconstructed in 3D by Marco EulisseFondazione Bracco

Supra-aortic vessels in magnetic resonance, reconstructed in 3D by Marco EulisseFondazione Bracco

Credits: Story

The previous contents are taken from the exhibition:
The Beauty of Imaging
Triennale di Milano
Milan, 27th May – 2nd July 2017

The exhibition was promoted by Bracco Group on the occasion of its 90th anniversary. It was curated by FeelRouge Worldwide Shows with the artistic supervision of Marco Balich and concept & design by Giò Forma Studio.

After the Milanese edition, attended by more than 10,000 visitors, The Beauty of Imaging was then hosted at the Città della Scienza in Naples (10 October 2018 - 6 January 2019), where it took an educational stance with 5 workshops dedicated to schools: “A terrestrial X-Ray”, “See the invisible”, “Molecules in movement”, “Looking for magnetic resonance, X-Rays, ultrasounds of artists!” and “The thousand lives of imaging: a journey between art and science”.
The Beauty of Imaging has thus become the greatest educational event ever done on diagnostic imaging, welcoming over 55,000 people, including many schools/elementary school students.

Thanks to the institutions, museums and authorities that granted access to the resources and archives.
Thanks for the cooperation in the content’s creation to:
Bracco Imaging
CDI – Italian Diagnostic Centre
Bracco Foundation
Bracco historic archive
C&I Department, Bracco Group

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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