Magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is used in hospitals and physician’s offices around the world to help diagnose a wide variety of patient conditions, from bone and joint problems to circulatory conditions. At the UW and other universities, that same technology is being used to get a unique view of diseases and conditions as they develop inside the body.
Though the UW has clinical MRI machines used for patient diagnosis and care, it also has another machine that is dedicated solely to medical research. The machine is part of the Bio-Molecular Imaging Center, or BMIC, a resource center located at the UW Medicine South Lake Union campus.
MRI technology can create detailed pictures of human tissue, with resolution fine enough that researchers can see tiny blood vessels or neural tracts. With such imaging capabilities, physicians can monitor the progression of the hardening of arteries in cardiovascular disease, or see shifts in neural activity between different areas of the brain.
The technology relies on a large magnet making a powerful magnetic field surrounding the body of a patient or research subject. The magnetic field changes the alignment of protons in the water molecules in human tissue. As the protons realign, they give off radio frequency signals, which are picked up by the MR scanner and translated into an image of the tissue.
At the UW’s BMIC, the scanning can be even more sophisticated. The center’s staff work closely with researchers to tailor the MRI program to their particular research needs, and have even aided in the development of specialized tools to help researchers scan a particular part of the body with higher resolution. For instance, BMIC staff worked with the UW Vascular Imaging Laboratory to customize MR scans to detect specific tissue components such as calcium and examine patterns of blood flow. Specialized coils developed at the UW that fit around the neck of the patient are also used, allowing researchers to see even finer detail in the carotid artery, which can become clogged with plaques and increase risk of stroke.
The BMIC has about 70 projects ongoing in the center, ranging from research areas such as cancer progression, brain physiology, vascular imaging, diabetes, and even rare diseases like scleroderma, a chronic connective tissue disease in which a person’s skin and joints slowly become calcified.
The BMIC is available for UW research teams that could benefit from using MRI technology in a study, and BMIC staff can also help in the development of pilot projects. For more information or to contact the BMIC about a research project, visit: http://www.rad.washington.edu/research/our-research/centers/bmic.