READ THE PASSAGE | MRI in a cell phone

An MRI machine of the future might be the size of a cell phone
Representational Image
Representational Image File/ GK

At present, we are hindered by the relatively crude nature of the existing instruments. But, as time goes by, more and more sophisticated instruments will probe deeper into the mind. The next big breakthrough may be MRI machines that are handheld.

The reason why MRI machines have to be so huge right now is that one needs a uniform magnetic field to get good resolution. The larger the magnet, the more uniform one can make the field, and the better accuracy one finds in the final pictures.

However, physicists know the exact mathematical properties of magnetic fields (they were worked out by physicist James Clerk Maxwell back in the 1860s). In 1993 in Germany, Dr. Bernhard Blümich and his colleagues created the world’s smallest MRI machine, which is the size of a briefcase.

It uses a weak and distorted magnetic field, but supercomputers can analyse the magnetic field and correct for this so that the device produces realistic 3-D pictures. Since computer power doubles roughly every two years, they are now powerful enough to analyse the magnetic field created by the briefcase-sized device and compensate for its distortion.

As a demonstration of their machine, in 2006 Dr. Blümich and his colleagues were able to take MRI scans of Ötzi, the “Iceman,” who was frozen in ice about 5,300 years ago toward the end of the last ice age. Because Ötzi was frozen in an awkward position, with his arms spread apart, it was difficult to cram him inside the small cylinder of a conventional MRI machine, but Dr. Blümich’s portable machine easily took MRI photographs.

These physicists estimate that, with increasing computer power, an MRI machine of the future might be the size of a cell phone. The raw data from this cell phone would be sent wirelessly to a supercomputer, which would process the data from the weak magnetic field and then create a 3-D image.

(The weakness of the magnetic field is compensated for by the increase in computer power.) This then could vastly accelerate research. “Perhaps something like the Star Trek tricorder is not so far off after all,” Dr. Blümich has said. (The tricorder is a small, handheld scanning device that gives an instant diagnosis of any illness.)

In the future, you may have more computer power in your medicine cabinet than there is in a modern university hospital today. Instead of waiting to get permission from a hospital or university to use an expensive MRI machine, you could gather data in your own living room by simply waving the portable MRI over yourself and then e-mailing the results to a lab for analysis.

It could also mean that, at some point in the future, an MRI telepathy helmet might be possible, with vastly better resolution than an EEG scan. Here is how it may work in the coming decades. Inside the helmet, there would be electromagnetic coils to produce a weak magnetic field and radio pulses that probe the brain.

The raw MRI signals would then be sent to a pocketsize computer placed in your belt. The information would then be radioed to a server located far from the battlefield. The final processing of the data would be done by a supercomputer in a distant city.

Then the message would be radioed back to your troops on the battlefield. The troops would hear the message either through speakers or through electrodes placed in the auditory cortex of their brains.

Excerpt From: Michio Kaku. “The Future of the Mind.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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