MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, is used to create images of the body’s tissues, specifically of the soft tissues, like organs. X-rays pass through soft tissues undistorted and relatively easily. Now, most human tissue is water-based (which makes sense considering we’re 70% water). The amount of water in tissues differ. So different tissues will behave differently. These differences can then be used to construct a 3D image.
MRI scans are constructed by applying a strong magnetic field around the body. In water, you can find single protons (Hydrogen atoms, like H20). In MRI scans, it is the H nuclei that create the signal.
So, initially, the fields are randomly oriented. When a strong external magnetic field is applied, a fraction will organize themselves, and align themselves with the external field. This external field is applied in a constant manner throughout the scanning session.
Now, when the protons are aligned, a brief radio frequency is applied. This radio frequency then knocks the protons out of alignment by 90 degrees to their original orientation. So now the protons are spinning in this new state, and as they do this, they produce a detectable change in the magnetic field. This then is what forms the MRI signal.
Eventually, the protons are pulled back into their original alignment (they “relax”). The MRI scanner then repeats the process by sending the radio frequency to excite the protons in different slices of the brain that is being scanned.
Now there are different types of MRI scans, including the T1 and T2 scans.
T1-weighted images are used for structural imaging of the brain. In a T1-weighted image, gray matter looks gray, and white matter looks white. Pretty simple to distinguish.
When the protons are misaligned at 90 degrees to the magnetic field, the MRI signal decays because of interactions with other nearby molecules. This is the T2 image.