Scientists have invented a mini MRI (and it might be going to space)

Scientists have developed and built a mini MRI, meaning people’s bone and muscle health can be determined with a quick scan, rather than making them lie down/ experience intense claustrophobia in a clanging metal tube. What’s more, it could be going into space.

As New Scientist reports, Gordon Sarty and his colleagues from the University of Saskatchewan in Canada wanted to find a way to assess the health of the astronauts on the International Space Station. Living in anti-gravity for six months can take its toll, causing significant loss of bone and muscle mass, but there’s no way to give people a check-up at 250 miles from Earth given that the average MRI machine (pictured) weighs more than a tonne. (Magnets are heavy, man.)

MRIs work by prompting protons in your bodily fluids to vibrate in line with a magnetic field created by the machine. The signals this transmits allows body tissues to be imaged. With the help of MRI manufacturer MRI-Tech Canada and space flight experts Com Dev International, Sarty and his colleagues have developed a new technique, which they call Transmit Array Spatial Encoding (TRASE).

TRASE works by sending radio pulses to an isolated body part, making the protons move and sending signals that can be extrapolated to gauge a user’s bone and muscle density. It weighs just 50 kg and fits around the wrist. It’s been successfully tested on humans and Sarty recently presented it at the International Astronautical Congress in Toronto. Now he and his team have to wait a couple of months to find out if the mini MRI will be selected by the Canadian Space Agency to go on a rocket flight to the ISS in 2016.

Whether it goes into space or not, it could have applications closer to home. It would be useful in small communities, could be much more easily transported to developing countries, and could even come as standard in future ambulances. ‘Five years down the road I expect really portable MRIs based on TRASE to be everywhere,’ Sarty says.

Image by Jan Ainali via Wikimedia Commons.

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Diane Shipley