A world first in medical imaging

2015 will be an important year for research and in the long term for human beings. An unusual MRI machine is to be commissioned at the CEA (French Atomic Energy Commissariat) in Saclay in France. Its level of effectiveness will be exceptional, and should solve a number of mysteries about our brain.

The "Iseult" project consists in making a very powerful magnet and was launched by a request for proposal fifteen years ago by Pierre Védrine, an engineer at the CEA. Thanks to a partnership in 2005 between France and Germany, this project was able to come to fruition, involving the CEA and the company Guerbet alongside the University of Freiburg and Siemens.

From a technical point of view, the machine will weigh 130 tons, 60 of which are for the magnet alone, which will have an internal diameter of one meter, and an external diameter of 4 meters. It will have a power of 11.7 Tesla, which is much higher than classic MRI machines used in hospitals (1.5T, and 3T at the very most). Specific equipment and materials will be used to operate, and most importantly, to control this magnet. What’s more, the use of a superconductor is essential to obtain an intense magnetic field. The material used conducts electricity without resistance when cooled to close to absolute zero, 1.8K (-271°C and 456.43°F) with superfluid liquid helium.
With this piece of apparatus combined with other sophisticated specially-adapted systems, it will be possible to multiply spatial and temporal resolutions by ten.

Denis Le Bihan, director of NeuroSpin, a research center dedicated to neuro-imaging at the CEA, explains that “the spatial resolution will make it possible to separate clusters of 1,000 to 5,000 neurons”, which is a tiny part of the brain. The doctor’s hope is to be able to verify the hypothesis according to which there is a “neural code”, a sort of writing, that is linked to the three dimensional organization of neurons. To do this, the movements of water have to be measured accurately, because water reflects the organization of cells in the cerebral cortex, using diffusion MRI. This technique is also used for diagnosing strokes (cerebrovascular accidents) because we know that the quantity of water falls in neurons that are dying.
This new piece of equipment should be able to observe all these movements, as well as other important elements, more accurately. It shouldn’t be long now before our brain reveals its secrets.

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