World’s most powerful MRI shows never-before-seen images of the human brain

World’s most powerful MRI shows never-before-seen images of the human brain
World’s most powerful MRI shows never-before-seen images of the human brain

The most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner in the world has managed to scan the human brain with a level of precision never seen before, its officials in France announced, a feat that could be decisive in detecting diseases.

Researchers from the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) first used the machine to scan a pumpkin in 2021. Recently, health authorities gave the green light to scan humans. Over the past few months, around 20 healthy volunteers have undergone the experiment of having their brains scanned in Saclay, a suburb south of Paris. “We saw a level of precision never before achieved in CEA,” said Alexandre Vignaud, a physicist working on the project.

A volunteer undergoes an examination using the Iseult, an MRI machine considered the most powerful in the world. Photograph: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

The magnetic field created by the scanner is 11.7 teslas, a unit of measurement named after inventor Nikola Tesla. This power allows the machine to scan 10 times more accurate images than the MRIs commonly used in hospitals, whose power normally does not exceed three teslas.

On a computer screen, Vignaud compared images captured by this powerful scanner, nicknamed Iseult, with those from a normal MRI. “With this machine, we can see the small vessels that feed the cerebral cortex, or details of the cerebellum that were almost invisible until now,” he said.

“Iseult” has provided its first images of the human brain and is expected to allow a better understanding of its functioning and of certain neurodegenerative and psychiatric diseases. The technical feat is the result of a Franco-German partnership that required more than 20 years of research. Photograph: ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

The machine consists of a cylinder measuring five meters long by five meters high, inside which there is a 132-ton magnet powered by a 1,500 amp coil. The entrance is 90 centimeters wide, through which the patient is slid. The design is the result of two decades of research by an alliance of French and German engineers.

The United States and South Korea are working on equally powerful MRI machines, but have not yet begun scanning images of humans. One of the main objectives is to multiply the understanding of brain anatomy and about the areas are activated when performing specific tasks.

Scientists have previously used MRI scanners to demonstrate that when the brain recognizes specific things, such as faces, places or words, different regions of the cerebral cortex are activated.

The power of 11.7 teslas will help Iseult “better understand the relationship between the structure of the brain and cognitive functions, for example, when we read a book or perform a mental calculation,” said Nicolas Boulant, scientific director of the project.

The researchers hope that the scanner’s power will also shed light on hidden mechanisms behind neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or psychological problems such as depression or schizophrenia.

“For example, we know that a specific area of ​​the brain, the hippocampus, is involved in Alzheimer’s disease, so we hope to be able to discover how cells work in this part of the cerebral cortex,” said CEA researcher Anne-Isabelle Etienvre.

Scientists also hope to map how certain medications used to treat bipolar disorder, such as lithium, are distributed throughout the brain. The strong magnetic field created by the MRI could help elucidate which parts of the brain are influenced by lithium. This could help identify which patients will respond better or worse to the drug.

“If we can better understand these harmful diseases, we can diagnose them earlier, and therefore treat them better,” said Etienvre.

For now, Iseult will not be used with real patients for several years. The machine “is not destined to become a clinical diagnostic tool, but we hope that the knowledge gained later can be used in hospitals”, explained Boulant. In the coming months, it is planned to recruit a new wave of volunteers to scan their brains.

This content was translated with the help of Artificial Intelligence tools and reviewed by our editorial team. Find out more in our AI Policy.

The article is in Portuguese

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