How MRI works

The body is largely composed of water molecules. Each water molecule has two hydrogen nuclei or protons. When a person goes inside the powerful magnetic field of the scanner, the magnetic moments of some of these protons changes, and aligns with the direction of the field.

In an MRI machine a radio frequency transmitter is briefly turned on, producing an electromagnetic field. The photons of this field have just the right energy, known as the resonance frequency, to flip the spin of the aligned protons in the body. As the intensity and duration of application of the field increase, more aligned spins are affected. After the field is turned off, the protons decay to the original spin-down state and the difference in energy between the two states is released as a photon. It is these photons that produce the electromagnetic signal that the scanner detects. The frequency the protons resonate at depends on the strength of the magnetic field. As a result of conservation of energy, this also dictates the frequency of the released photons. The photons released when the field is removed have an energy — and therefore a frequency — due to the amount of energy the protons absorbed while the field was active.

It is this relationship between field-strength and frequency that allows the use of nuclear magnetic resonance for imaging. Additional magnetic fields are applied during the scan to make the magnetic field strength depend on the position within the patient, in turn making the frequency of the released photons dependent on position in a predictable manner. Position information can then be recovered from the resulting signal by the use of a Fourier transform. These fields are created by passing electric currents through specially-wound solenoids, known as gradient coils. Since these coils are within the bore of the scanner, there are large forces between them and the main field coils, producing most of the noise that is heard during operation. Without efforts to dampen this noise, it can approach 130 decibels (dB) with strong fields  (see also the subsection on acoustic noise).

An image can be constructed because the protons in different tissues return to their equilibrium state at different rates, which is a difference that can be detected. Five different tissue variables — spin density, T1 and T2 relaxation times and flow and spectral shifts can be used to construct images. By changing the parameters on the scanner, this effect is used to create contrast between different types of body tissue or between other properties, as in fMRI and diffusion MRI.

Contrast agents may be injected intravenously to enhance the appearance of blood vessels, tumors or inflammation. Contrast agents may also be directly injected into a joint in the case of arthrograms, MRI images of joints. Unlike CT, MRI uses no ionizing radiation and is generally a very safe procedure. Nonetheless the strong magnetic fields and radio pulses can affect metal implants, including cochlear implants and cardiac pacemakers. In the case of cochlear implants, the US FDA has approved some implants for MRI compatibility. In the case of cardiac pacemakers, the results can sometimes be lethal, so patients with such implants are generally not eligible for MRI.

MRI is used to image every part of the body, and is particularly useful for tissues with many hydrogen nuclei and little density contrast, such as the brain, muscle, connective tissue and most tumors.

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