Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a non-invasive method used to render images of the inside of an object. It is primarily used in medical imaging to demonstrate pathological or other physiological alterations of living tissues.


A computed tomography (CT) scanner uses X-rays, a type of ionizing radiation, to acquire its images, making it a good tool for examining tissue composed of elements of a relatively higher atomic number than the tissue surrounding them (classically, calcium based bone visualized within carbon based flesh), such as bone and calcifications within the body, or of structures (vessels, bowel) which have been artificially enhanced with contrast agents containing elements of a higher atomic number than the surrounding flesh (iodine, barium). MRI, on the other hand, uses non-ionizing radio frequency signals to acquire its images and is best suited for non-calcified tissue.

Both CT and MRI scanners can generate multiple two-dimensional cross-sections (slices) of tissue and three-dimensional reconstructions. Unlike CT, which uses only X-ray attenuation to generate image contrast, MRI has a long list of properties that may be used to generate image contrast. By variation of scanning parameters, tissue contrast can be altered and enhanced in various ways to detect different features. (See Application below.)

MRI can generate cross-sectional images in any plane (including oblique planes). CT is limited to acquiring images in the axial (or near axial) plane. However, the development of multi-detector CT scanners with near-isotropic resolution produces data that can be retrospectively reconstructed in any plane with minimal loss of image quality.


In clinical practice, MRI is used to distinguish pathologic tissue (such as a brain tumour) from normal tissue. One advantage of an MRI scan is that it is harmless to the patient. It uses strong magnetic fields and non-ionizing radiation in the radio frequency range. Compare this to CT scans and traditional X-rays which involve doses of ionizing radiation and may increase the risk of malignancy, especially in a fetus.

While CT provides good spatial resolution (the ability to distinguish two structures an arbitrarily small distance from each other as separate), MRI provides comparable resolution with far better contrast resolution (the ability to distinguish the differences between two arbitrarily similar but not identical tissues). The basis of this ability is the complex library of pulse sequences that the modern medical MRI scanner includes, each of which is optimized to provide image contrast based on the chemical sensitivity of MRI.

The typical MRI examination consists of 5-20 sequences, each of which are chosen to provide a particular type of information about the subject tissues. This information is then synthesized by the interpreting physician.


Implants and foreign bodies: Pacemakers are generally considered an absolute contraindication towards MRI scanning, though highly specialized protocols have been developed to permit scanning of select pacing devices. Several cases of arrhythmias or death have been reported in patients with pacemakers who have undergone MRI scanning without appropriate precautions. Other electronic implants have varying contraindications, depending upon scanner technology, implant properties, scanning protocols and anatomy being imaged. Consult your referring physician or radiologist to identify the safety or hazards of any implant.

Though pacemakers receive significant attention, it should also be noted that many other forms of medical or biostimulation implants may be contraindicated for MRI scans. These may include Vagus nerve stimulators, implanted cardio-defibrilators (ICD), loop recorders, insulin pumps, cochlear implants, deep brain stimulators and many, many others. Medical device patients should always present complete information (manufacturer, model, serial number and date of implantation) about all implants to both the referring physician and to the radiologist or technologist before entering the room for the MRI scan.

Ferromagnetic foreign bodies (e.g. shell fragments), or metallic implants (e.g. surgical prostheses, aneurysm clips) are also potential risks, and safety aspects need to be considered on an individual basis. Interaction of the magnetic and radiofrequency fields with such objects can lead to: trauma due to movement of the object in the magnetic field, thermal injury from radio-frequency induction heating of the object, or failure of an implanted device. These issues are especially problematic when dealing with the eye. Most MRI centers require an orbital x-ray be performed on anyone who suspects they may have small metal fragments in their eyes, perhaps from a previous accident, something not uncommon in metalworking.

Because of its non-ferromagnetic nature and poor electrical conductivity, titanium and its alloys are useful for long term implants and surgical instruments intended for use in image-guided surgery. In particular, not only is titanium safe from movement from the magnetic field, but artifacts around the implant are less frequent and less severe than with more ferromagnetic materials e.g. stainless steel. Artifacts from metal frequently appear as regions of empty space around the implant - frequently called 'black-hole artifact' e.g. a 3mm titanium alloy coronary stent may appear as a 5mm diameter region of empty space on MRI, whereas around a stainless steel stent, the artifact may extend for 10-20 mm or more.

A new classification system for implants and ancillary clinical devices has been developed by ASTM International:

  • MR-Safe: The device or implant is completely non-magnetic, non-electrically conductive, and non-RF reactive, eliminating all of the primary potential threats during an MRI procedure.
  • MR-Conditional: A device or implant that may contain magnetic, electrically conductive or RF-reactive components that is safe for operations in proximity to the MRI, provided the conditions for safe operation are defined and observed (such as 'tested safe to 1.5 teslas' or 'safe in magnetic fields below 500 gauss in strength').
  • MR-Unsafe: Nearly self-explanatory, this category is reserved for objects that are significantly ferromagnetic and pose a clear and direct threat to persons and equipment within the magnet room.

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