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Ultra-High Field MRI Neuroimaging – Could This Be a Game Changer?

Does size matter? In the world of neuroimaging and MRI, the question seems reasonable. Last year, the FDA approved the clinical use of Ultra-High Field MRI scanners in patients. What exactly is an Ultra-High Field MRI? Think of it as your regular MRI on steroids. Instead of the measly 1.5 Tesla magnet in most hospital MRI scanners, Ultra-High Field MRIs have a 7-Tesla magnet or higher. The images are incredible. Could this be a breakthrough in detecting, monitoring and even managing neurological diseases? Some experts certainly think so.

Looking Back at MRI Neuroimaging

The MRI neuroimaging has been around for some time, but its clinical use only took off in the early 1980s. Only a few know, but research used Ultra-High Filed MRIs beginning 1998. In 2015, nearly 40 million MRI scans were performed on patients in the U.S. alone.

Neurologists and physicians consider the MRI as the most important medical development in the last quarter century. It’s therefore not surprising that MRI neuroimaging continues to advance, especially with a current U.S. MRI market worth $6.1 billion.  

So how does MRI work? MRI neuroimaging exposes your body’s tissue to high-powered magnetic fields that temporarily align hydrogen proton “spin” in the same direction. The application of radio frequency causes these same protons to “flip” their spin based on tissue characteristics. The protons return to their normal position and state once the radio frequency waves stop. Because different tissues have different amounts of hydrogen (water), images can be created based on these subtle differences. The difference for Ultra-High Field MRI is that the higher magnetic field allows neuroimaging to exhibit markedly better image details.

The Potential Benefits of Ultra-High Field MRI

The best way to explain the advantages of Ultra-High Filed MRI is to define its level of detail. For a traditional MRI scan of the brain, a “voxel” on the scan contains about 100,000 brain cells. A voxel is simply a cubic unit of the image similar to a pixel on your smartphone. For Ultra-High Fast MRI scans, each voxel contains a much smaller number of cells to view. In fact, the estimate is that these voxels only contain a few thousand cells. The more refined these advances in neuroimaging have become, the more details are seen in cellular structure and function. This has notable implications in diagnostic and treating many neurological diseases.

The high resolution of Ultra-HighField MRI scans is attractive for clinical and research areas. Greater detail means better diagnostic capabilities and less patient risk. A prime example is a case where a patient ’s tiny pituitary gland tumor in the brain was identified using Ultra-High-Field MRI. The tumor wasn’t seen on routing MRI neuroimaging, and the finding allowed the patient to avoid more invasive surgical care. Ultra-HighField MRI is also improving diagnostics in patients with Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy, and stroke. Its use in research has vast implications for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and ALS.

 Is There a Market for Ultra-High Field MRI Technology?

Ultra-High Field MRI certainly offers an ability to see the brain’s structure in greater detail.  It also provides tremendous opportunities to examine interactions among brain cells and brain regions. This has significant applications in trying to understand neurological illnesses. With the aging of the population and a rise in chronic diseases, Ultra-High Field MRI will likely be well utilized. Cost and poor reimbursement issues may exist presently, these will likely improve in time.

Projections in the MRI neuroimaging market expect to see the growth of 5.5 percent between now and 2025. Currently, there are only about 50 Ultra-High Field MRI scanners in the world for clinical use, but with FDA approval, this will probably advance quickly. Several major companies are highly invested in advancing these MRI neuroimaging technologies. Siemens Healthcare offers its MAGNETOM TERRA Ultra-High-Field MRI for clinical and research purposes. Other major players include GE healthcare, Hitachi Ltd., and Toshiba Medical Systems Corporation. If the past predicts the future, it is highly likely Ultra-HighField MRI will soon become a routinely used neuroimaging procedure.

What’s the Limit on Magnet Size in MRI Neuroimaging?

As noted, Ultra-High Field MRI scanning has been in use since the late 1990s for research purposes. Today, some neuroimaging labs have 21 Tesla MRI scanners that allow exquisite detail and information in animal research. It, however, remains unclear if these potent magnets are safe for human beings. Currently, 10.5 Tesla and 11.7 Tesla models of Ultra-High Field MRIs are now under examination for use in clinical medicine. But the jury is still out so far. One thing is for certain, however. The potential for unlocking many secrets of the brain and in advancing neurological care will undoubtedly involve these advances in neuroimaging. Does size matter? It would appear so.