Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a noninvasive medical imaging technique based on a phenomenon of nuclear physics discovered in the 1930s, in which matter exposed to magnetic fields and radio waves was found to emit radio signals. In 1970, a physician and researcher named Raymond Damadian noticed that malignant (cancerous) tissue gave off different signals than normal body tissue. He applied for a patent for the first MRI scanning device, which was in use clinically by the early 1980s. The early MRI scanners were crude, but advances in digital computing and electronics led to their advancement over any other technique for precise imaging, especially to discover tumors. MRI also has the major advantage of not exposing patients to radiation.
Drawbacks of MRI scans include their much higher cost and patient discomfort with the procedure. The MRI scanner subjects the patient to such powerful electromagnets that the scan room must be shielded. The patient must be enclosed in a metal tube-like device for the duration of the scan, sometimes as long as thirty minutes, which can be uncomfortable and impractical for ill patients. The device is also so noisy that, even with earplugs, patients can become anxious or even fearful. These problems have been overcome somewhat with the development of “open” MRI scanning, which does not require the patient to be entirely enclosed in the metal tube. Patients with iron-containing metallic implants (internal sutures, some prosthetic devices, and so on) cannot undergo MRI scanning because it can dislodge these implants.
Functional MRIs (fMRIs), which detect the concentration of blood flow in certain parts of the body, are increasingly being used to study the activity in parts of the brain during various body activities. This has helped scientists learn more about the locations of different brain functions and more about brain abnormalities and diseases.