If we hear the words “Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine,” we might imagine a huge tube with an opening at both ends. Powerful magnets and radio waves surround the tube. The patient needs to be brought to the MRI scanner, and then he or she lies on a flatbed that is moved into the bore of the scanner.

Now imagine: What if the MRI machine were portable and could be wheeled to you instead?

How MRI works

Our body is made up mostly of water molecules that consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Protons, are found at the center of each hydrogen atom, are like very small magnets, which are of course very sensitive to the magnetic fields. Inside the wheel in the MRI machine, the powerful magnets align the spin axes of all the protons in water molecules in the body tissues with the long axis of the body. Then the radio waves are sent to certain areas of the body where they interact with the protons, causing radio waves to give an “off” signal. Once the radio wave is switched off, the realigned protons will send out radio signals, which are detected by the scanner and transformed into images.

Portable MRI: When the machine comes to meet the patient

The are many reasons why MRI is ordered by a doctor. One reason is because the results of MRI scan can help to diagnose conditions that affect soft tissue so that the doctor can plan treatments and assess how effective any previous treatment was. MRI machines are, however, quite complex pieces of equipment. They are expensive to use and mostly found only at well-equipped hospitals or specialized centers. Gaining access to them is sometimes a challenge. So, what happens if a patient urgently needs to be diagnosed, but there are no MRI machines available in that area? How about if a patient cannot be moved from the bed to the flatbed at the MRI machine due to his or her condition? Clinical research conducted on eighty-five stroke patients who received bedside MRI within seven days of experiencing symptoms determined that for producing images that display the internal structure of the head where full diagnostic examination is not clinically practical, the device is substantially equivalent to standard MRI machine.

Fortunately in February of 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the world’s first low cost and portable MRI scanner. It is produced by Hyperfine, an American company founded in 2014. The portable MRI scanner has a weight of 635 kg, which is 10 times less than a traditional MRI scanner, and it utilizes a permanent magnet of only 0.064 Tesla. It has a motorized wheel array on the bottom which enables the machine to be wheeled into a hospital room. Designed to be placed next to the patient’s bed, the MRI machine does not interfere with other equipment or metals and plugs into a standard electrical wall outlet. The portable MRI can be controlled from a standard tablet device such as an iPad, and once the scan is completed, the images can be viewed on the tablet or uploaded to the cloud.

The portable MRI allows an easy access to critical MRI imaging services, especially for patients in rural areas and developing countries. While the image quality produced by the portable MRI may not be as good as that of traditional MRI scanners, the issue could be solved by using artificial intelligence. Machine and deep learning can help turn blurry images into high-resolution computer-generated images. AI tools can even provide an automated report from the scanner, adding value to the portable scanner.

Author: Nia Ammann