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IBM Develops MRI With 100 Million Times More Detail

The technique allows physicians to see below tissue surfaces without disrupting sensitive organs.
Researchers at IBM have developed a medical imaging tool that provides doctors with 100 million times more picture detail, or resolution, than conventional equipment.

IBM's breakthrough magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology relies on the detection of "ultrasmall magnetic forces," according to the company. The process, called magnetic resonance force microscopy, allows physicians to see below tissue surfaces without disturbing sensitive biological materials.

"This technology stands to revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements," said Mark Dean, VP of strategy and operations at IBM Research.

IBM developed the technology in collaboration with the Center for Probing the Nanoscale at Stanford University in California.

"MRI is well known as a powerful tool for medical imaging, but its capability for microscopy has always been very limited," said Dan Rugar, manager of nanoscale studies at IBM.

Unlike conventional MRI machines, which use imaging and gradient coils to scan the body, IBM's device detects minute magnetic forces while the sample rests on a microscopic cantilever -- a small sliver of silicon that's shaped like a diving board.

Magnetic spins in the sample's hydrogen atoms interact with a nanoscopic magnetic tip, causing vibrations in the cantilever that are tracked by laser interferometry. "Our hope is that nano MRI will eventually allow us to directly image the internal structure of individual protein molecules and molecular complexes," said Rugar.

In the lab, IBM applied the technique to a sample of tobacco mosaic virus and achieved resolution down to four nanometers, the company said. IBM published the results Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.