Public Release: 

New discovery may enhance MRI scans, lead to portable MRI machines

Decades-old scientific mystery solved in latest issue of the Journal of Chemical Physics

American Institute of Physics

COLLEGE PARK, MD, Nov. 25, 2008 -- Researchers in Ohio and France have solved a longstanding scientific mystery involving magnetic resonance -- the physical phenomenon that allows MRI instruments in modern hospitals to image tissues deep within the human body. Their discovery, a new mathematical algorithm, should lead to new MRI techniques with more informative and sharper images.

As described in an article posted online today in the Journal of Chemical Physics, a peer-reviewed journal published by the American Institute of Physics (AIP), the work may even help scientists devise ways of using MRI without having to put people inside giant magnets -- an advance that could lead to portable and less costly MRIs.

The new work solves a mystery that has persisted for decades, says Philip Grandinetti, a professor of chemistry at The Ohio State University and one of the coauthors of the article. The solution to this mystery came as a result of their work in trying to optimize magnetic resonance pulse sequences. Specifically, they were looking for better ways of doing something known as an "inversion" in a magnetic resonance measurement.

Bathed in the magnetic field, atomic nuclei within water and other molecules throughout cells and tissues in a person's body will align themselves in the direction of the magnetic field. Inversion is an important process done in MRI scans that realigns the nuclei so they are against the magnetic field. When all is said and done, inverting the nuclei of people inside MRI scanners can reveal such things as cancer tumors, whose slightly different response to the changing field can be used to detect their presence amid surrounding healthy tissue.

These inversions of the nuclear spins are typically done "adiabatically". The method involves placing a patient inside the large donut-shaped magnet of an MRI instrument and applying low-power radio waves that sweep through a specific range of frequencies. If a frequency sweep is performed slowly enough then at the end of the process all the nuclei will be "inverted." The confounding thing, says Grandinetti, is that for decades adiabatic sweeps worked in many situations, even though the mathematics predicted that they should not have. Solving this mystery, Grandinetti and his colleagues turned to a new mathematical framework, called "superadiabaticity" that was discovered in the late 1980s by Michael Berry, a mathematical physicist at University of Bristol, but largely unappreciated until now.

The difference between the two processes is represented in the equations, and the upshot, says Grandinetti, is that now scientists have the correct mathematical framework to work with. This can help them design ways to better control MRI inversions and get more information out of MRI scans.

"We were just viewing the problem wrongly," says Grandinetti, who conducted the research in collaboration with his colleagues Michael Deschamps and Dominique Massiot at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in France and Gwendal Kervern, Guido Pintacuda, and Lyndon Emsley the University of Lyon in France.

"It is exciting because everyone missed this simple explanation," adds Grandinetti.

Grandinetti hopes to incorporate the algorithm into software for controlling MRI scans, where it would boost image resolution. One day, it might even help these instruments obtain signals from objects located outside of a magnet. Scientists, he adds, could also use superadiabaticity to exert better control over atoms for quantum computing, and to make more precise structural studies of complex biological molecules.


This work was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA and the CNRS and Le Studium in France.

The article "Superadiabaticity in Magnetic Resonance" by Michael Deschamps et al. is being published online on November 25, 2008 in the Journal of Chemical Physics (Volume 129, issue 20). The article will be available at after November 25, 2008. Reporters can request a PDF by emailing

REPORTERS: A computer-generated image depicting the concept of superadiabaticity is available to members of the news media. Contact Jason Socrates Bardi at

ABOUT THE JOURNAL OF CHEMICAL PHYSICS Produced by the American Institute of Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics publishes concise and definitive reports of significant research in methods and applications of chemical physics. Innovative research in traditional areas of chemical physics such as spectroscopy, kinetics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics continue to be areas of interest to readers of JCP. In addition, newer areas such as polymers, materials, surfaces/interfaces, information theory, and systems of biological relevance are of increasing importance. Content is published online daily, collected into four monthly online and printed issues (48 issues per year). See:

ABOUT AIP The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is a non-profit corporation chartered in 1931 for the purpose of advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics and its application to human welfare. An umbrella organization for 10 Member Societies, AIP represents over 134,000 scientists, engineers and educators and is one of the world's largest publishers of physics journals. A total-solution provider in publishing services, AIP publishes its own 12 journals (many of which have the highest impact factors in their category), two magazines, and the AIP Conference Proceedings series. Its online publishing platform Scitation hosts more than 1,000,000 articles from more than 175 scholarly journals, as well as conference proceedings, and other publications of 25 learned society publishers. See:

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