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30. MRI: Magnetic Resonance Imaging - Nifty 50

MRI image of human head

Fundamental research, supported by NSF, led to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology, now widely used in hospitals to detect tumors and internal tissue damage in patients and to investigate differences in brain tissue, for example.

Early research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has had a larger role in long-range commitment to the development of MRI. Few would have predicted in 1946, when Stanford and Harvard researchers discovered and explored the phenomenon of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), that the study of the spin characteristics of basic matter would lead in the 1970s to improvements in health care.

But that is exactly what happened. NMR was quickly applied to the development of NMR spectrometers, scientific instruments used extensively in analytical chemistry. From 1971 to 1981, medical researchers and physical scientists in the U.S.A. and Britain did much of the pioneering work to develop the MRI imaging technique.

Clinical medicine uses

By 1988, MRI had achieved significant penetration of its primary market: clinical medicine. MRI has surpassed computer-aided tomography (CAT) scanners as the preferred diagnostic tool for a number of diseases, especially those involving damage to the soft tissues of the body.

MRI technology was made possible by combining information about the spin characteristics of matter with research in mathematics and high-flux magnets. It relies on the physics of nuclear magnetic resonance and on the core technology of NMR spectrometry-measuring the wavelengths of a spectrum.

MRI today

Now MRI is used in many U.S.A. and foreign hospitals, as a noninvasive technology that helps physicians diagnose a wide array of illnesses. It is an excellent example of how basic research results can provide the basis for practical applications some years later.

NSF provided a significant part of the basic research infrastructure that scientists throughout the world drew upon in the development of MRI. From 1955 to the 1990s, NSF support for the underlying NMR instrumentation amounted to $90 million.

NSF also supported research in other areas directly related to the development of MRI technology, such as electromagnetics, digital systems, computer engineering, biophysics and biochemistry.

Original publication date: April 2000

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