NMR in Imaging – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)


Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) refers to a physical phenomenon whereby nuclei in a magnetic field absorb and re-emit electromagnetic radiation. This property is exploited in a variety of applications, ranging from molecular chemistry to medical imaging. In this article, we dive deep into the world of NMR and its critical application in the field of medical diagnostics through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI).

The Fundamentals of NMR

At the heart of NMR lies the intrinsic property of certain atomic nuclei—their spin. Nuclei with an odd number of protons and/or neutrons possess a characteristic spin, creating a magnetic moment. When placed in an external magnetic field, these magnetic moments align along the direction of the field, existing in a low-energy state.

When energy in the form of a radiofrequency (RF) pulse is applied, nuclei are excited to a higher energy state. As they relax back to their lower energy state, they emit radiofrequency signals, which are detected by NMR equipment. The frequency of the emitted signal is specific to the type of nucleus and its chemical environment, a principle known as chemical shift.

The Transition to Imaging – MRI Principles

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is a sophisticated application of NMR that builds images of the inside of a body. It exploits the same principles of nuclear alignment and radiofrequency excitation and detection, with the key addition of magnetic field gradients.

1. Magnetic Field and Homogeneity

The core component of an MRI machine is its powerful, highly homogeneous magnet, commonly achieved with superconducting coils. Homogeneity of the magnetic field is crucial for accurate imaging since any inhomogeneities can cause distortions in the spatial encoding of signals.

2. Magnetic Gradients and Spatial Encoding

Gradients are precisely controlled variations in the magnetic field along different axes of the scanner (commonly x, y, and z). They make it possible to localize the NMR signal in three dimensions. By changing the gradients, we can select different slices of tissue to image.

3. RF Pulses and Echoes

RF pulse sequences are designed to generate specific types of images. One classic sequence is the spin-echo, which is used to refocus dephasing spins and to alter image contrast. T1 and T2 relaxation times (unique to each type of tissue) influence the signal and are manipulated to highlight various tissue characteristics.

The MRI Procedure

In an MRI scan, a patient lies within the MRI scanner’s bore. The process is meticulously orchestrated:

1. Slice Selection

The patient is surrounded by a uniform magnetic field. When a particular slice of the body is to be imaged, a gradient is applied, and an RF pulse matching the resonance frequency of that slice location causes nuclei to move to a higher energy state.

2. Phase Encoding

After the RF pulse, a phase-encoding gradient is briefly applied, causing spins in different rows to acquire different phases. This is crucial for the reconstruction of the image in one of the spatial dimensions.

3. Frequency Encoding

Simultaneously, a frequency-encoding gradient (readout gradient) is applied. Spins along this gradient precess at different frequencies, allowing for encoding of the other spatial dimension.

4. Signal Detection and Image Reconstruction

The emitted RF signals are captured by receiver coils. Each detected signal contains combined spatial information due to the varying magnetic gradients. Complex algorithms—usually based on the Fourier Transformation—reconstruct these signals into a detailed 2D image.

Advanced Techniques and Applications

MRI is not limited to simple structural imaging. Advanced techniques such as functional MRI (fMRI), diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI), and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) yield data on brain activity, the microscopic movement of water molecules, and the concentration of various metabolites, respectively.

Safety and Limitations

MRI is generally considered safe as it involves no ionizing radiation. However, it has limitations, such as its contraindication for patients with certain types of metallic implants, the potential for claustrophobia, and its relatively high cost.


NMR has paved the way for revolutionizing medical diagnostics with MRI. This imaging modality provides unparalleled insights into the human body, contributing to better diagnosis and treatment strategies. As technology advances, we can expect even more refined applications of NMR in medical imaging and a continued positive impact on healthcare.


– Mansfield, P., & Morris, P. G. (1982). NMR Imaging in Biomedicine. Academic Press, New York.
– Callaghan, P. T. (1993). Principles of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Microscopy. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
– Haacke, E. M., Brown, R. W., Thompson, M. R., & Venkatesan, R. (1999). Magnetic Resonance Imaging: Physical Principles and Sequence Design. John Wiley & Sons.

– Hornak, J. P. The Basics of MRI. Rochester Institute of Technology. https://www.cis.rit.edu/htbooks/mri/inside.htm

– Bernstein, M. A., King, K. F., & Zhou, X. J. (2004). Handbook of MRI Pulse Sequences. Elsevier Academic Press.

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