This Is My Brain on 3-Tesla MRI
Still, when Brewer waves his metal-detecting wand over me, a disturbing thing happens: It beeps. By my upper jaw. Hello, surgical pins.
Brewer frowns. The magnet sits in the next room, its field blocked by copper sheathing that lines the chamber’s walls. “I want you to approach the MRI very carefully,” he says to me. “And tell me if you feel anything. Anything.”
We step through the doorway, Brewer clutching my bicep to ensure that I take only baby steps. The magnet greets us with a steady, canary-like chirping (the by-product of hundreds of liters of liquid helium re-circulating through its coils). With each step, I anticipate a searing in my jaw, but the burn never comes. Eventually, our promenade delivers me to the doughnut hole of the MRI, where I lie flat on my back and squeeze my head inside a birdcage-like apparatus. Brewer hands me a small, rubber sphere. “Hold onto this. This is your panic button. Squeeze it if you feel any pain. Or if you just feel like you need to get out.” Then he pushes something, and I slide headfirst into the MRI’s belly.
Brewer retreats to the next room, where he operates the scanner from a computer while watching me through a plate-glass window. “Just rest comfortably and try to keep your head still,” he says through a microphone. “This is going to be a high-resolution structural scan of your brain. Are you ready to go?”
For the next hour or so, the magnet bangs and whirs and squeaks while Brewer runs sequence after sequence to capture different aspects of my brain’s architecture. Toward the tail end of the session, he runs a functional scan. A small mirror mounted on my birdcage lets me see a computer screen positioned by my feet, and the screen instructs me to perform a simple finger-tapping routine, alternating between my left and right hands.
Left index, middle, ring, pinkie. Rest. Right index, middle, ring, pinkie. Repeat. For six minutes I continue, tapping my fingers precisely as instructed. And then the screen goes black. “All done,” pipes in Brewer’s voice. “Now let’s get you out of the scanner and take a look at your brain.”
MRI captures remarkably detailed pictures of subjects’ brains, and the images also can be pieced together to create three-dimensional models. At OMRF, scientists have tapped this technology to study neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). They’re also employing MRI to understand cancers of the brain and lesions that form in the brains of multiple sclerosis patients. Yet the utility of MRI is not limited to studies of the brain: Towner also counts current research projects involving liver and colon cancers, lupus, anthrax, diabetes and heart disease.
OMRF opened its facility in the fall of 2004; contributions and grants from the Presbyterian Health Foundation, Henry Zarrow, the National Institutes of Health and the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science Technology helped foot the nearly $4 million bill for building and equipping the facility, purchasing the magnet and recruiting the scientific personnel to operate it. In less than three years, Towner and his staff already have run more than 3,000 scans. The projects have involved scientists not only from OMRF but also from other institutions across the state and around the world (Towner now is working on a pair of studies with Japanese scientists).
With one of only a dozen or so 7-tesla magnets in the U.S., OMRF’s facility has been popular among researchers from the get-go. But it has become so busy lately that the magnet can no longer meet demand. “We’re operating seven days a week, and on most days, we run for 24 hours,” says Towner. To keep up, OMRF will purchase a second MRI later this year. That magnet will have a field strength of 11.7 tesla—roughly eight times stronger than MRIs found in most hospitals. According to Towner, OMRF’s new magnet will be in elite company: “There are only a handful of 11.7’s out there.”