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Last Updated: Friday, 10 November 2006, 17:53 GMT
Super scan reveals brain secrets
By Fergus Walsh
Medical correspondent, BBC News

Click here to see the brain scan in greater detail

Nottingham University has just unveiled the biggest brain scanner in the UK.

As I glided into the heart of the new seven tesla MRI scanner, I couldn't help reflecting how far these machines had come in terms of user friendliness alone since the first one clanked into action on this same spot in 1977.

Back then its inventor, Dr, now Sir, Peter Mansfield tested his rather Heath-Robinsonesque prototype on himself.

Laboriously squeezing into the cramped interior, he captured the world's first magnetic resonance image of the human body - a slice through his own torso, showing off his liver and spinal column.

If there is a problem then it stands out very clearly
Sir Peter Mansfield
At the time, no-one knew if exposing the human body to a large magnetic field was safe, and Mansfield admits he underwent that first scan with some trepidation.

"The worst thing that could have happened would have been a cardiac arrest.

"I gave the order to press the button for a single pulse - there was a click and I felt nothing, so we carried on the scan."

Invaluable resource

Thirty years on, such suspicions are long-forgotten. MRIs are now a standard diagnostic tool for diseases such as cancer.

They are also invaluable to researchers studying the brain - prized for their ability to image and differentiate between the body's soft tissues as well as bone.

"One isn't fishing around looking at poor quality images trying to work out what this bump is," said Sir Peter.

"If there is a problem, then it stands out very clearly so medically there's been a huge advance."

Sir Peter won the Nobel Prize in 2003 for his work on MRI and is still working at Nottingham University.

One of his young post-doctorate assistants, Peter Morris, who was at the controls of that first scanner three decades ago, is also still there.

The seven tesla magnet - the biggest in the UK - is now Professor Peter Morris's baby and he is very excited by its potential.

The 40-tonne magnet was delivered in December 2004 and building it into a working scanner was no simple matter.

With a magnetic field 140,000 times that of the Earth's, it throws out a powerful force that has to be shielded in concrete and more than 200 tonnes of iron.

If not all the compasses for miles around would point at the MRI unit.

It has taken 18 months to get the new scanner installed and working effectively, but now Professor Morris and his team are ready to use it to probe the functions and failures of the body.

Test drive

To see just how advanced Nottingham's new prize is, I volunteered for some medical trials on the new machine.

We can look down at a lower scale than we have been able to before
Professor Peter Morris
First, I was scanned inside a top-of-the-range three tesla magnet.

These MRI scanners are used in research and some hospitals. I then spent about 40 minutes inside the new 7T scanner.

It promises the most detailed images yet of the brain, as well as intricate real-time imaging of thought processes that can be used to study mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

Even to my untrained eye, I could see the stark contrast between the new and the old.

The seven tesla image was crisper, with far more detail.

"Essentially what we are seeing with the seven tesla is an amplified difference between the different tissues, and with much finer resolution, so we can see much finer detail," said Professor Morris.

"We can look down at a lower scale than we have been able to before. We know that there are some lesions which are located within particular structures which are currently too fine to see, and we hope we will be able to address those at seven tesla.

"We think there is a very real opportunity to study some of the neurodegenerative diseases and their effects on the brain."

I was in the pair of scanners for about two hours and it is very noisy inside; you have to wear earplugs and headphones.

It's not for the claustrophobic, as you are deep inside a tube and have no room to move.

Nodded off

But you soon get used to it and I found it very relaxing, and I have to confess that at one point I fell asleep.

This was during a clinical trial when I was supposed to be focussing on some checkerboard images which were flashing before my eyes.

My only defence is - how often do you get to lie down - with no-one bothering you, during the middle of the day?

Thankfully, I did manage to stay awake for a second experiment, so my contribution to brain imaging may yet make its way into one of the Nottingham team's research papers.

Don't expect to see the new machine being installed in a hospital near you. This is one of only a handful of seven tesla magnets in the world.

And it's surely appropriate that one of those is in Nottingham - the home of the MRI scanner.

The UK's biggest brain scanner at work

Scan pioneer shares Nobel prize
06 Oct 03 |  Health

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