MRI versus CT

A computed tomography (CT) scanner uses X-rays, a type of ionizing radiation, to acquire its images, making it a good tool for examining tissue composed of elements of a higher atomic number than the tissue surrounding them, such as bone and calcifications (calcium based) within the body (carbon based flesh), or of structures (vessels, bowel). MRI, on the other hand, uses non-ionizing radio frequency (RF) signals to acquire its images and is best suited for non-calcified tissue, though MR images can also be acquired from bones and teeth as well as fossils.

CT may be enhanced by use of contrast agents containing elements of a higher atomic number than the surrounding flesh such as iodine or barium. Contrast agents for MRI have paramagnetic properties, e.g., gadolinium and manganese.

Both CT and MRI scanners are able to generate multiple two-dimensional cross-sections (slices) of tissue and three-dimensional reconstructions. Unlike CT, which uses only X-ray attenuation to generate image contrast, MRI has a long list of properties that may be used to generate image contrast. By variation of scanning parameters, tissue contrast can be altered and enhanced in various ways to detect different features.

MRI can generate cross-sectional images in any plane (including oblique planes). In the past, CT was limited to acquiring images in the axial (or near axial) plane. The scans used to be called Computed Axial Tomography scans (CAT scans). However, the development of multi-detector CT scanners with near-isotropic resolution, allows the CT scanner to produce data that can be retrospectively reconstructed in any plane with minimal loss of image quality.

For purposes of tumor detection and identification in the brain, MRI is generally superior. However, in the case of solid tumors of the abdomen and chest, CT is often preferred due to less motion artifact. Furthermore, CT usually is more widely available, faster, less expensive, and may be less likely to require the person to be sedated or anesthetized.

MRI is also best suited for cases when a patient is to undergo the exam several times successively in the short term, because, unlike CT, it does not expose the patient to the hazards of ionizing radiation.

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