Clever math enables MRI to map molecules implicated in multiple sclerosis, other diseases

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Clever math enables MRI to map molecules implicated in multiple sclerosis, other diseases

New techniques wring subtle signals from data already produced by scanners

MRI scanners can map a person’s innards in exquisite detail, but they say little about composition. Now, physicists are pushing MRI to a new realm of sensitivity to trace specific biomolecules in tissues, a capability that could aid in diagnosing Alzheimer’s and other diseases. The advance springs not from improved scanners, but from better methods to solve a notoriously difficult math problem and extract information already latent in MRI data.

The new techniques, described this month at a meeting of the American Physical Society here, could soon make the jump to the clinic, says Shannon Kolind, a physicist at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, who is using them to study multiple sclerosis (MS). “I don’t think I’m being too optimistic to say that will happen in the next 5 years,” she says. Sean Deoni, a physicist at Brown University, says that “any scanner on the planet can do this.”

An MRI scanner uses magnetic fields and radio waves to tickle the nuclei of hydrogen atoms—protons—in molecules of water, which makes up more than half of soft tissue. The protons act like little magnets, and the scanner’s strong magnetic field makes them all point in one direction. A pulse of radio waves then tips the protons away from the magnetic field, causing them to twirl en masse, like so many gyroscopes. The protons then radiate radio waves of their own.

Read on: Clever math enables MRI to map molecules implicated in multiple sclerosis, other diseases

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