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New MRI 'fingerprinting' could spot diseases in seconds

Researchers say the tech, which could help spot heart disease, multiple sclerosis, specific cancers, and more, may make MRI scans a standard procedure during annual exams.

Our body tissue, not to mention diseases, each have their own unique "fingerprint," which can in turn be examined to diagnose various health issues at very early stages.

An MRI scanner. Muffet/Flickr

Now, researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland say that after a decade of work they've developed a new MRI (magnetic resonance imagining) technique that can scan for those diseases very quickly. In just 12 seconds, for instance, it may be possible to differentiate white from gray matter in cerebrospinal fluid in the brain; in a matter of minutes, a full-body scan would provide far more data, making diagnostics considerably easier and less expensive than today's scans.

"The overall goal is to specifically identify individual tissues and diseases, to hopefully see things and quantify things before they become a problem," Mark Griswold, a radiology professor working on the technique, said in a school news release. "But to try to get there, we've had to give up everything we knew about the MRI and start over."

Griswold and colleagues report in Nature that their method, which they dub magnetic resonance fingerprinting (MRF), is able to get far more out of a scan than a traditional MRI. He compares the difference in approach to two choirs.

In the traditional MRI, everyone sings one song simultaneously, making it easy to detect who is singing louder, or off pitch. "But that's about it," Griswold said.

In MRF, on the other hand, each member of the choir sings a different song simultaneously. "What it sounds like in total is a randomized mess," he said. But the researchers are able to pick out the unique songs by changing different parts of the input electromagnetic fields that are probing the tissue, making the received signal sensitive to four physical properties that vary across tissues. Pattern-recognition programs similar to those used in facial-recognition software can detect these differences, chart the patterns, and tell the tissue apart.

Ultimately, when they've fine-tuned the tech, they'll not only be able to tell the tissue apart, but determine which is diseased and, if so, to what extent.

On the patient's end, the MRF would seem like nothing more than a fast MRI scan. On the technician's end, all of the patient's "songs" would be compared with the larger songbook, providing doctors with a litany of diagnostic data.

"If colon cancer is 'Happy Birthday' and we don't hear 'Happy Birthday,' the patient doesn't have colon cancer," Griswold said.

He added that while other researchers have tried to use multiple parameters in MRIs, his group was able to scan fast while maintaining higher sensitivity than previous efforts. "This research gives us hope. We can see that it's possible the MRI can see all sorts of things."