Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is one of the newest diagnostic medical imaging technologies that uses strong magnets and pulses of radio waves to manipulate the natural magnetic properties in the body to generate a visible image. In the field of mental health, an MRI scan may be used when a patient seeks medical help for symptoms that could possibly be caused by a brain tumor. These symptoms may include headaches, emotional abnormalities, or intellectual or memory problems. In these cases, an MRI scan may be performed to "rule out" a tumor, so that other tests can be performed in order to establish an accurate diagnosis.
MRI was developed in the 1980s. Its technology has been developed for use in magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), and, more recently, magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography (MRCP). MRA was developed to study blood flow, whereas MRS can identify the chemical composition of diseased tissue and produce color images of brain function. MRCP is evolving into a non-invasive potential alternative for the diagnostic procedure endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP).
DETAIL. MRI creates precise images of the body based on the varying proportions of magnetic elements in different tissues. Very minor fluctuations in chemical composition can be determined. MRI images have greater natural contrast than standard x rays, computed tomography scan (CT scan), or ultrasound, all of which depend on the differing physical properties of tissues. This sensitivity allows MRI to distinguish fine variations in tissues deep within the body. It is also particularly useful for spotting and distinguishing diseased tissues (tumors and other lesions) early in their development. Often, doctors prescribe an MRI scan to investigate more fully earlier findings of other imaging techniques.
SCOPE. The entire body can be scanned, from head to toe and from the skin to the deepest recesses of the brain. Moreover, MRI scans are not obstructed by bone, gas, or body waste, which can hinder other imaging techniques. (Although the scans can be degraded by motion such as breathing, heartbeat, and bowel activity.) The MRI process produces cross-sectional images of the body that are as sharp in the middle as on the edges, even of the brain through the skull. A close series of these twodimensional images can provide a three-dimensional view of the targeted area. Along with images from the cross-sectional plane, the MRI can also provide images sagitally (from one side of the body to the other, from left to right for example), allowing for a better three-dimensional interpretation, which is sometimes very important for planning a surgical approach.
SAFETY. MRI does not depend on potentially harmful ionizing radiation, as do standard x ray and computed tomography scans. There are no known risks specific to the procedure, other than for people who might have metal objects in their bodies.
Despite its many advantages, MRI is not routinely used because it is a somewhat complex and costly procedure. MRI requires large, expensive, and complicated equipment, a highly trained operator, and a doctor specializing in radiology. Generally, MRI is prescribed only when serious symptoms or negative results from other tests indicate a need. Many times another test is appropriate for the type of diagnosis needed.
Kurt Richard Sternlof, Laith Farid Gulli M.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,