This Is My Brain on 3-Tesla MRI
But I have not flown 1,500 miles just to eat lunch. I’ve traveled to La Jolla to get a brain scan in the Human Memory Laboratory at the University of California, San Diego. I want to see the future of medical research, to view my own brain through a 3-tesla MRI, a human scanner twice as powerful as any in Oklahoma and strong enough to see both the structure of my brain and what parts I’m using when I perform certain tasks.
And while I’m in the magnet, I want to learn if my hippocampus shows any signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
For the past year, Brewer has been collaborating with Dr. Rheal Towner and his team in OMRF’s small animal imaging facility. The facility is unique in Oklahoma and one of only two dozen of its kind in the nation. Using a research-grade magnet specially designed for rodents, Towner works to develop new, non-invasive techniques for studying cells at microscopic levels. These methods do not harm the animals, and OMRF’s work provides clinicians like Brewer—a neurologist—with blueprints for using MRI to diagnose and treat disease in human patients.
With a bore (the hole in the center of the magnet) less than a foot in diameter, OMRF’s MRI cannot accommodate human subjects. But it is this small bore that makes OMRF’s magnet so powerful, four times stronger than those found in most hospitals. Brewer’s research-grade magnet, which is twice as strong as a standard hospital MRI but still only half as powerful as OMRF’s, represents the gold standard for human scanners. It is on magnets like Brewer’s that scientists have seen dizzying progress in understanding the human brain and in diagnosing and treating the diseases that afflict it.
The work done at OMRF and similar facilities has given neurologists like Brewer the tools to assess tumors and help develop surgical plans for patients with brain cancers. To understand how people learn, make memories, tell lies and fall in love. And, in a potentially groundbreaking study, to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier stage than currently is possible.
No, I decide, I’m not going back to Oklahoma just yet.
Our waiter offers Brewer some coffee. He opts for decaf. “I’ll need a steady hand,” he says. He’s joking, I think.
If something goes wrong, I ask him a few minutes later, how will we know?
“Oh, you’ll feel it.” With magnetic fields tens of thousands times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field, explains Brewer, “MRIs have been known to pull nails right out of floors.” And Brewer’s $5 million machine is no average MRI. “I was planning on running some really aggressive scans, so we’ll just take it slow and see how things go.”
I don’t finish my dessert; I seem to have lost my appetite.
The behavior of molecules in a magnetic field. Because molecules behave differently in different tissues, MRI can create highly detailed images of the body’s internal organs. Using more powerful magnets (like Brewer’s), researchers also can perform what’s known as “functional” scans, which detect changes in the natural magnetic properties of the blood cells that carry oxygen.