Lauterbur’s MRI continues to advance 50 years later
March 16, 2023, marks 50 years since Paul Lauterbur published his seminal Nature paper establishing zeugmatography—now familiar to most as magnetic resonance imaging or simply MRI—as a way to visualize objects with a magnetic field and radiofrequency signals.
A faculty member at Stony Brook University in New York at the time of the discovery, Lauterbur was recruited to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the 1980s and won the 2003 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for developing MRI along with British physicist Sir Peter Mansfield.
Lauterbur’s first human MRI scanner is preserved in the Illinois MRI Exhibit at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, where advancements in medical imaging include: advanced blood flow imaging in the brain to better understand tinnitus, the first MRI atlas of a bearded dragon brain, and efforts to democratize neuroimaging data in diverse communities.
Most recently, researchers have unlocked the ability to conduct scans in real time and see the physical mechanics of activities such as speaking, singing, and swallowing. They have also developed techniques to use MRI to visualize genetic expression in the brain when learning.
“MRI has become one of the most important tools for doctors to see inside the body to understand what is happening in disease. MRI shows soft tissues like the brain, the heart, and other muscles and organs. It provides several ways to view the status of the tissue, such as looking at the shape, changes to the structure, blood flow, and inflammation. Being able to see inside the body quickly and clearly has led to advanced treatments and longer, healthier lives. MRI is a flexible imaging technique, and many physicians, scientists, and engineers continue to develop new ways to see disease earlier, enabling more effective treatments” commented Brad Sutton, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the technical director of the Biomedical Imaging Center at the Beckman Institute.
Reportedly, experts say that MRI scanners continue to improve. One way that the scanners have changed is the magnetic field strength. This is measured in Teslas as the unit—the earth’s magnetic field is approximately 0.00005 Tesla. Paul Lauterbur’s first human MRI magnet was 0.09 Tesla, or about 2,000 times the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled him to see structures in the body, but grainy and at low resolutions. Modern clinical MRI systems are 3 Tesla. Recently, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Carle Hospital jointly purchased an MRI magnet that is 7 Tesla—75 times stronger than Lauterbur’s initial magnet.
According to Sutton, in the next few years, there will be new MRI systems with even higher magnetic fields, providing even higher spatial resolution images of the body and brain.
“We will see systems that integrate information across all patients to better understand what we are seeing in the image and what it means for the health of the patient. We will also see new information when looking at the images, with new techniques leading to images where the signal intensity in the image represents quantitative information about the status of the tissue, including concentrations of key molecules in each pixel of the image, mechanical and electrical properties of the tissues, information about how the brain is performing its activities including changes to the tissue structure and genetic expression, and the systems will produce actionable 3D visualizations of the person in the scanner so that a doctor can perform virtual interventions and virtual surgeries to see the best way to treat the patient” Sutton shared.