PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Have you ever had to do an MRI? This is the noisy machine with a very strong magnet that can take pictures of the inside of your body.
If you’ve had an MRI, you may have wondered how it looks inside you and what happens if metal gets near it.
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Because my brother works for RSTI, a Solon, Ohio company that trains engineers and medical professionals in using medical imaging equipment, he put us in touch with MRI instructor Lance King.
Beam: What does MRI stand for?
Lance King: It stands for magnetic resonance imaging.
Elisabeth: How does an MRI work?
Lance King: Well, it’s actually pretty amazing. Most medical technology uses X-rays. It’s invasive, and too many x-rays are dangerous. MRI does not use X-rays. It uses radio frequencies in combination with the magnetism, so what happens when you go inside the magnet, your hydrogen protons, which are basically water, align themselves with a magnetic field. Then you hit those protons with a very strong RF, high frequency signal. This signal brings these protons into an excited state. When you turn this signal off, these energized protons begin to relax and realign themselves with the magnet. They give off a very small high frequency signal that we pick up with a coil, which is basically a form of an antenna. Then we run that through a series of computers and other things and turn it into a picture.
Beam: Is an MRI dangerous?
Lance King: No. You feel absolutely nothing. The biggest complaint about MRIs is the fact that people are a bit claustrophobic and very noisy inside, but nothing moves. There is nothing harmful. You are very, very safe and you could have an MRI literally every day, the rest of your life, and it would never harm you. I can tell you that I have been personally scanned over 200 times.
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Elisabeth: What are other cool things we should know about MRI?
Lance King: Basically an MRI is a superconducting electromagnet, and by “superconducting” I mean that it is actually filled with liquid helium and that liquid helium exists at four degrees Kelvin, which is four degrees above absolute zero. Absolute zero is the point where all molecular movement and everything stop. MRIs are basically just a large electromagnet, but instead of copper wire around an iron core, they use niobium-titanium wire, which is in a bath of liquid helium at a temperature of four degrees Kelvin. The niobium-titanium is superconducting, which means that when it is so cold it has no resistance and the basic laws of electricity somehow get out of the window at this point. Once you introduce a current into that coil of wire it will go on forever and ever without stopping.
Beam: What if you have metal in the MRI room?
Lance King: Well that is a great question. Magnetic metals and MRIs do not mix. Basically what will happen is that if you take something metallic into the room, the magnet will tear it out of your hand and it will turn into a bullet against whoever is in it. From this perspective it is very dangerous, otherwise MRIs are very safe.
Elisabeth: Can you show us
Lance shows us some cool experiments with metal on the MRI, which has a magnetic field 30,000 times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field. The first experiment shows what a tennis ball filled with steel wool does in the presence of the magnet of the MRI.
The next experiment uses scissors tied to a string and they float as the magnet tries to pull them through. Lance says that something like this could be fatal to someone inside.
The final demonstration shows how something small, like paper clips, can still hurt someone.
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These experiments are very cool in my opinion and are best seen in the attached video.