A Brief History of MRI Scans

Our previous blog post looked at the technology of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and how they work. But how did they get started?

Like other types of medical technology, MRI is the result of years of research and innovation. Let’s take a look at the history behind this amazing technology.

Beginnings of MRI

Most scientific advancements depend on the work of multiple individuals, over many years of research, and MRI is no exception. 

The history of MRI starts with the study of magnetic resonance, or how electrons and the nuclei of atoms respond to magnetism. This led to a form of science called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR).

In the 1930s, the physicist I. I. Rabi developed a method for measuring the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei. In his work, Rabi established a lab to attempt to determine the nuclear spin, the magnetic properties and movement, of sodium. His work led to the magnetic resonance method, the foundation for medical MRI.

During the 1940s, physicists Edward Purcell and Felix Bloch independently discovered ways to study the magnetic resonance properties of atoms and molecules in solids and liquids. This research would later allow MRI scanners to use water in the human body to develop images. The two men shared the 1952 Nobel Prize in physics for their discoveries.

Swedish researchers Erik Odeblad and Gunnar Lindström later studied the use of magnetic resonance in calf cartilage. They speculated that the differences in how water and biological tissues responded was because of how different tissues absorb and organize water molecules.

Dr. Raymond Damadian hypothesized in 1969 that magnetic resonance could be used to differentiate cancer cells from non-cancerous cells. He successfully demonstrated his hypothesis in rats. Damadian found that different kinds of tissue emit response signals of different lengths, with longer response signals in cancerous tissue.

The chemist Paul Lauterbur also recognized the potential medical use of NMR. He hypothesized that a magnetic field could be used to take two-dimensional images of an object. These images could be “stacked” on top of each other to create 3D images.

Physicist Peter Mansfield began working to shorten the time to complete magnetic resonance scans, from hours to minutes. Using a new technique, Mansfield took images of his graduate student’s finger in 15-23 minutes per section. This was the first time that a human body part had been successfully scanned with NMR technology. 

In 1972, Damadian created a hypothetical magnetic resonance cancer-detecting machine and filed the first patent of MRI technology. After his patent was approved in 1974, Damadian developed medical MRI, designing and building a full-body MRI machine.

With further research and development, NMR became the imaging technique that we still use today. Researchers performed the first MRI scan on a live human patient on July 3, 1977. MRI scanners eventually were commercially available in the 1980s.

MRI scans today

MRI scanners are now used all over the world, in a wide range of medical facilities. Healthcare providers order and perform millions of MRI scans each year to screen patients for cancer, identify tissue injuries and organ dysfunction, and monitor treatment effectiveness.

Because MRI scans use magnets rather than radiation, they are one of the safest imaging modalities available. Ezra offers full-body MRI scans to screen for cancer and other conditions. It is a safe, effective, and painless way to take control of your health and gain peace of mind. Get started today.