Scientists are welcoming a new MRI machine at the National MagLab that provides the best spatial resolution available for human imaging, making it a powerful tool for nationwide, multi-site health research.

Manufactured by Siemens, the state-of-the-art, whole-body scanner is powered by a 3-tesla magnet (tesla is a unit of magnetic field strength). But it's not the machine’s main magnetic field — on a par with many hospital MRIs — that makes the instrument special. Rather, the unit features the most powerful gradient magnet fields available, which help generate very sharp images of very tiny anatomical structures.

“Gradients provide the high spatial resolution in MRI, and with the new system we get the localization we need for small structures,” said Joanna Long, director of the MagLab's Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy (AMRIS) facility at the University of Florida, where the new instrument is located.

For anyone who has been inside an MRI machine, the gradient magnetic fields are responsible for that unpleasant racket you hear; technicians trigger them to target different areas of the body. But they also help generate more precise images – in this case, around a millimeter in resolution, allowing scientists to see bundles of neurons inside the brain. (Learn more about how MRI machines work).

As one of a number of similar machines recently installed around the country, the new system will enable researchers working at AMRIS to participate in large-scale, multi-site health studies. For example, some AMRIS researchers are using the machine as part of a years-long study to track brain cognitive development in adolescents. Others will use it for research on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disorders. Glenn Walter, an associate professor in physiology and functional genomics at the University of Florida, is using it to develop MRI techniques to assess how effective drugs are at treating muscular dystrophy, a less invasive approach than muscle biopsy.

By allowing MagLab users to participate in such longitudinal studies, the $3 million system will yield high research dividends. “It's a really good example of how the magnetic resonance research program at the MagLab can leverage something bigger,” Long said.

To celebrate a trio of recent upgrades, including the new MRI machine, added dynamic nuclear polarization capabilities, and a new console for the 11-tesla MRI/S system, AMRIS hosted a reception and symposium this week.

Text by Kristen Coyne; Image courtesy of AMRIS.

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This week at the lab, scientists from across North America are learning the theory and practice of radio frequency (RF) coils.

RF coils are used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to transmit and receive RF signals. The MagLab’s Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Spectroscopy (AMRIS) Facility at the University of Florida has an entire lab devoted to RF coil manufacture and development, led by RF engineer Malathy Elumalai.

In response to a growing need for visiting scientists to be able to troubleshoot and design their own RF coils, Elumalai is sharing her expertise at this week’s inaugural coil workshop. Empowering scientists to make their own coils makes sense. The demand for specialized coils has outpaced the rate at which Elumalai can design them. Additionally, sometimes the coils break, causing an experiment to come to a halt.

Throughout this week’s workshop, participants will learn the physics behind RF coils and be trained in specialized software for designing and modeling how the coils will behave under different magnetic fields and with different samples. Participants also have the chance to build their own coil and test it in the MagLab’s 4.7 tesla imaging magnet.

How do RF coils in MRI machines work? First, the coil transmits an RF signal, which produces a magnetic field perpendicular to the one already being produced by the magnet. Then, the same RF coil (or a separate one) receives signals indicating how the nuclear spins inside the subject are relaxing. This information is then processed as an image. Without RF coils, there’d be no "I" (imaging) in MRI!

The workshop is an example of the ongoing training we offer our "users" so that they can make the most of their time with our magnets. The MagLab also offers a User Summer School and a Theory Winter School once a year.


Text and image by Elizabeth Webb.

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