A Portable Scanner for Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain

Brad Roth
3 min readJan 8, 2021


A Portable Scanner for Magnetic
Resonance Imaging of the Brain
Cooley et al., Nat. Biomed. Eng., 2020

Chapter 18 of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology describes magnetic resonance imaging. MRI machines are usually heavy, expensive devices installed in hospitals and clinics. A recent article by Clarissa Cooley and her colleagues in Nature Biomedical Engineering, however, describes a portable MRI scanner. The abstract states

Access to scanners for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is typically limited by cost and by infrastructure requirements. Here, we report the design and testing of a portable prototype scanner for brain MRI that uses a compact and lightweight permanent rare-earth magnet with a built-in readout field gradient. The 122-kg low-field (80 mT) magnet has a Halbach cylinder design that results in a minimal stray field and requires neither cryogenics nor external power. The built-in magnetic field gradient reduces the reliance on high-power gradient drivers, lowering the overall requirements for power and cooling, and reducing acoustic noise. Imperfections in the encoding fields are mitigated with a generalized iterative image reconstruction technique that leverages previous characterization of the field patterns. In healthy adult volunteers, the scanner can generate T1-weighted, T2-weighted and proton density-weighted brain images with a spatial resolution of 2.2 x 1.3 x 6.8 mm^3. Future versions of the scanner could improve the accessibility of brain MRI at the point of care, particularly for critically ill patients.

Cooley et al.’s design has four attributes.

  1. It’s designed for imaging the head only. Most critical care MRIs are of the brain, so focusing on imaging the head is not as limiting as you might think. By restricting the device to the head they are able to reduce the weight of their prototype to 230 kg (about 500 pounds); not something you could carry in your pocket, but light enough to be transported in an ambulance or wheeled on a cart. The power required, about 1.7 kW, is far less than for a traditional MRI device, so the portable scanner can be operated from a standard wall outlet.
  2. The static magnetic field is produced by permanent magnets. Typical MRI scanners create a static field of a few Tesla using a superconductor, which must be kept cold. Cooley et al.’s device avoids cryogenics completely by using room-temperature, permanent neodymium magnets in a Halbach configuration, producing a static magnetic field of 0.08 T. The lower field strength reduces the signal-to-noise ratio, so advanced MRI techniques such as echo-planar, functional, or diffusion tensor imaging are not feasible. However, many emergency MRIs are used to diagnose traumatic brain injury and don’t rely on these more advanced techniques. The Halbach design results in a small magnetic field outside the scanner, which minimizes safety hazards associated with iron-containing objects being sucked into the scanner.
  3. The readout gradient is static. In IPMB, Russ Hobbie and I describe how magnetic field gradients are used to map the Larmor frequency to position. Usually the readout gradient of an MRI pulse sequence is turned on and off as needed. By making this gradient static, Cooley and her collaborators eliminate the need for a power supply to drive it. Most MRI pulse sequences require gradients in three directions, and in Cooley et al.’s device the gradients in the other two directions must still be switched on and off in the traditional way. One side effect of the reduced gradient switching is that this MRI scanner is quieter than a traditional device. This may seem like a minor advantage, but try having your head imaged in a typical MRI scanner with its gradient switching causing a deafening racket.
  4. Much of the signal analysis is switched from hardware to software. Because of nonlinearities in the gradient magnetic field, traditional Fourier transform algorithms to convert from spatial frequency to position produce artifacts, and iterative methods that correct for these errors are needed.

Cooley et al.’s article fascinated me because of its educational value; the challenges they face force readers to think carefully about the design parameters and limitations of traditional MRI. If you want to learn more about normal MRI scanners, read this article to see how researchers had to modify the traditional design to overcome its limitations.

Low-cost MRI systems for brain imaging. by Clarissa Cooley.

Originally published at http://hobbieroth.blogspot.com.



Brad Roth

Professor of Physics at Oakland University and coauthor of the textbook Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.