Celebrating MRI technology: From a green bell pepper to artificial intelligence

Dr. Craig Buckley, Head of Research and Collaborations, Siemens Healthineers
As featured in the July issue of RAD Magazine
 |  Jul 20, 2017


Many healthcare innovations have changed the world, with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) being one that has been unlocking insights into the human body over the past five decades. From discovering the potential of the technology when studying plastics in 1959, to the launch of the first clinically prepared 7 Tesla MRI scanner in 2016, we have pioneered every step of the way.  

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first human scan using MRI technology, so what better time to look at how the technology has developed and predict what the future holds.  


Making the invisible visible
In 1983, Siemens Healthineers was the first company to install a commercial magnetic resonance imaging system for clinical applications, when the MAGNETOM was commissioned. However, the innovation began a few years earlier, starting with an innocuous green bell pepper.  

Dr. Arnulf Oppelt along with Alexander Ganssen created the very first Siemens Healthineers MRI image in 1979. The pepper was chosen as the perfect test object due to its ability to hold still and imitate the size (and internal characteristics) of a human organ. The image took several hours to complete but was enough to convince management of the great potential of magnetic resonance imaging.  

Soon after, Ganssen and Oppelt were given the green light to continue their activities, and it didn’t take long before the team’s research brought further successes. The first image of a human head followed just a few months later, with Ganssen himself volunteering for the scan which, in comparison to the pepper image, only took eight minutes to complete.  

Already the time investment required for a scan had significantly reduced and illustrated to the world the potential of this technology. 


Earlier diagnosis and personalised treatment
Fast forward to the present day to the ground breaking 7 Tesla MRI scanner. The ultra-high field technology that enables researchers to look at the physical and chemical components of the brain in exquisite detail – not just an image. The level of detail which can be seen is similar in size to a grain of sand, providing new insight and the possibility of earlier diagnosis and more personalised treatment for patients.  

Innovations such as this in modern imaging technology means researchers now have greater opportunities to study how the brain encodes information, including individual memories. It also allows us to see small structures in the brain associated with the early stages of dementia, as well as those associated with brain injuries and epilepsy. Advancements like this could even spell the end of having to cut into the brain and study a sample under a microscope.  

Discovering different and innovative ways to improve the care of patients, reducing the need for risky, exploratory surgery is high on our agenda. With new technology like the 7T MAGNETOM Terra, moving us one step forward in reaching that goal. 


Could artificial intelligence (AI) hold the key to future diagnosis?
Today, the sheer volume of data that’s acquired through imaging technology means there are endless possibilities when predicting future diagnosis, personalising treatment and ensuring the right decision is made at the right time. This data is only set to increase, with techniques needed to ensure it is best used in the most efficient, and accurate way.  

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the potential to free up the time of radiologists, clinicians and technologists by focussing on the likes of computer assisted diagnosis and early detection, so they can focus their attention to enhance patient care. AI techniques can look through large numbers of MRI scans to pick up trends, patterns or predict future diagnosis, quickly, based on additional information such as historical data.  

However, harnessing the power of AI shouldn’t be viewed as ‘de-skilling’, rather that it is allowing skilled people to focus on the activity requiring real human input, ensuring patients are receiving the best level of care possible. It is widely known that there is currently a significant need for additional skills within the NHS, and AI could help in better using the talent, and improving workflow.  

With imaging techniques and the use of data set to become even more sophisticated, the next 40 years is likely to see the benefits that early diagnosis brings, both for patients and the health service on a wider scale.


As featured in the July issue of RAD Magazine