U begins research with powerful MRI magnet

by Nathan Hall

In the 1900s, scientists used sorcery and black magic to read the human mind.

Today’s scientists say they have found something more reliable – with a basis in science – to unlock the secrets of the mind: gigantic magnets.

Researchers have heralded the use of magnets, radio waves and computers in a process called magnetic resonance imaging to produce high-quality photos. The procedure, known as MRI, is capable of detecting brain disorders and could unlock the secrets of human thought processes.

This month, the University becomes the second U.S. college to conduct research using one of the most powerful MRI magnets, capable of taking pictures of objects as small as an individual clump of oxygen molecules.

But other MRI researchers and people familiar with the technology say they are not convinced bigger is always better.

University officials who will use the magnet say it solidifies the University as one of the top research programs in MRI research.

“We do the most premier research in the field here,” University radiology professor Kamil Ugurbil said. He said there are much more powerful magnets, but that the University’s magnet is unique because it has an opening large enough to place a human head or small animal in it. Most magnets of that size usually have smaller openings.

“This is the highest field-strength magnet in the world, and it will be the Hubble Telescope of the human mind,” said Tommy Vaughn, a University associate radiology professor. “We’ll be able to learn more about ourselves chemically, mentally and physically.”

Those questioning the need for more powerful magnets cite safety and ethical concerns.

Chieng Yang, a University of Chicago research associate, said most MRI disease research uses tracing agents – brightly-colored chemicals injected into subjects to highlight blood-flow levels.

Yang said tracing agents are tested using lower-powered magnets. Scientists do not know what the effects of a higher powered magnet on the agents might be.

“You don’t know if they’ll be safe at higher levels like that,” Yang said.

Brian Fiske, associate editor of the medical journal Nature Neuroscience, said one possible goal of this MRI research is to predict behavior.

“That’s a dangerous thing since the predictability level is not all that great,” he said.

Fiske questioned the ethics of some recent MRI research that compared the brain activity of convicted murderers to nonmurderers and attempted to identify “dangerous people.”

“It is sort of like phrenology in the sense that we’re always trying to divide up the brain into little pieces, like how personality studies have always gone,” Fiske said.

Phrenology is the study of behavior by feeling bumps on a person’s head.

More powerful than a locomotive

The University’s magnet, housed near Mariucci Arena on the East Bank and with a strength of 9.4 teslas – units of measurement of magentic force – has enough power to pull trains off of nearby railroad tracks were it not enclosed in a giant 290-ton iron box.

The University’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research purchased the magnet from Magnex Scientific, an Oxfordshire, England, company. Including installation, the magnet’s cost was $3.5 million.

Nathan Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]