Today it is capable of probing the inside of a pumpkin with an accuracy of 0.4 millimeters (mm). Tomorrow, it will allow researchers to analyze our brains in even greater detail: 0.1 to 0.2 mm, ten times the resolution of today’s magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In the basements of NeuroSpin, the CEA research facility that houses this new team, scientists are relishing the moment. After twenty years of internal development at Saclay, but also at Belfort in Alstom, the most powerful MRI machine in the world is operational.
“Researchers studying the brain will have a unique tool at their disposal,” says Lionel Quettier, engineer and project manager for the magnetic part of magnetic resonance imaging. Measuring 5 meters long and weighing 130 tons, it operates with a magnetic field of 11.7 Teslas that allows it to obtain an image resolution unique in the world. “The available signal, that is, the information that we are really going to recover, increases very rapidly with the value of the magnetic field. When we go from 3 tesla, the threshold used in the machines that equip hospitals in France, to 11.7 tesla, is multiplied by ten ”, confirms Cécile Lerman, engineer and project manager of the magnetic resonance part.
This new magnifying glass will take a little longer to deliver its full potential. “The microscope is working. We have a first image. However, over the next several months we will play with the different magnet parameters to adjust clarity and resolution, explains Lionel Quettier. things to configure and develop in the imaging part “, adds Cécile Lerman. For example, the device uses a 500 megahertz antenna whose function is to send radio waves to the brain and capture the signal emitted by the fabrics.” This fundamental element can still be perfected. A new model should see the light of day, which makes it possible to homogenize the images but also speed up the examinations of future patients, “explains Cécile Lerman. The researchers are also working on software capable of taking head movements into account. Below half a millimeter in spatial resolution, the simple act of breathing makes it extremely difficult to produce sharp images.
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Of course, permissions will also be required to “create images” of human volunteers. At the moment, at the European and American level, it is impossible to exceed the 8 Tesla threshold, even if 11.7 Tesla devices are already used in small animals. “From experience we know that a little over a year can pass between the first images, traditionally made on vegetables, and the first tests on man”, confides Cécile Lerman. But once this step is taken, MRI with a strong magnetic field should allow science to make a lot of progress.
“We may be interested in new molecules”
“We know that the brain is made up of several areas, each of which has a functional role. With current imaging, the role of neuron populations is somewhat drowned in mass, as the resolution is too rough,” he says. Cécile Lerman. Also, while researchers have long known about the most important white matter fibers, whose function is to transport information from one point to another, there is still a world of small bundles to explore and analyze. “It is like going from highways to departmental or even small roads”, enthuses the researcher. In the NeuroSpin lab, a team is already working (at 7 Tesla) on the role of these short fibers in autism. And this is just one of many avenues of investigation.
“By following people for several years and looking at the images retrospectively, we hope to find early biomarkers of certain diseases,” explains Cécile Lerman. Often when patients undergo an MRI, their pathology is already in an advanced stage. For example, there is atrophy of the hippocampus. “In the future, this type of anatomical damage could be detected earlier thanks to more sophisticated images. Unless the activity of the fibers of the white matter serves as a precursor of the disease.
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“With magnetic resonance imaging with a strong magnetic field, we can be interested in new molecules, much less present in our body, than those of water”, adds Cécile Lerman. Sodium in particular is a good marker of cellular balance. NeuroSpin researchers are also working on phosphorus, a key molecule in energy metabolism. Another field of research for scientists: lithium, used to treat bipolar disorders. “They are very difficult to characterize: it takes months to know if a treatment is effective or not. In addition, there may be side effects. Finally, some people respond well to treatment and others do not. It would be interesting to see if during the first month of taking lithium Rather, a person has the correct profile or not. With a more accurate image history, this may be possible. ”
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