Since its invention in the 1970s, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has opened up a window onto the world beneath our skin. By exploiting the way the nuclei of hydrogen atoms in water and fat molecules resonate in a strong magnetic field, MRI can generate high-contrast three-dimensional images of soft body tissues, joints, and bones. MRI allows clinicians to see evidence of injury and disease within the body, ranging from torn muscle to damaged cartilage, ligaments, and tendons, as well as tumors or other disease lesions within major organs, and blood-flow blockages in the brain, all without the ionizing radiation of the X-rays used in computed tomography (CT) scans.
There is, however, a considerable usability problem with the MRI scanner as we currently know it: the technology takes far too long to acquire images, forcing patients to lie still in the confined maw of a massive magnet for up to an hour. With the observable world reduced to a halo of grayish plastic just inches from one's nose, it is a particularly tough experience for those suffering from claustrophobia. It can be disturbingly noisy, too: the scanner's magnetic components can rattle at 110 decibels or more when energized.
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