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The world's smallest magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner is now in use at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield, significantly transforming the way that radiologists can obtain internal images of small babies.
Infants born prematurely often undergo ultrasound brain scans in order to see whether or not their early birth has caused any damage to their development, but this technique isn't always in-depth enough to detect signs of damage caused by a lack of oxygen during birth.
MRI can pick up on such issues, but the scanners available at most hospitals are typically designed for fully-grown adults and as a result are not suitable for accurately scanning the small, delicate brains of premature newborns.
What's more, MRI machinery is often simply far too heavy to be transported to hospital maternity wards, which are frequently located on the upper floors. Consequently, many premature infants miss out on having developmental problems properly diagnosed, meaning their long-term health could potentially worsen as a result.
However, the new specially-designed smaller scanner at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital produces sound waves that are able to penetrate the two fontanelles in babies' brains. These are the soft spots in between the skull bones that ultrasound scanners cannot necessarily reach.
It's also compact enough to be permanently housed within hospitals' maternity units. To date, approximately 40 newborns have already been scanned using the Sheffield-based machine.
Explaining the benefits of the new smaller scanner, Professor Paul Griffiths of the University of Sheffield stated: "Ultrasound is cheap, portable and convenient, but the position of the fontanelles means there are some parts of the brain which cannot be viewed.
"MRI is able to show all of the brain and the surrounding anatomy, making the images easier to explain to parents."
He added that one of the main diagnostic advantages of this technology is that is can clearly show a wider range of brain abnormalities, particularly those related to a lack of oxygen or a restricted blood supply.
If more such machines are rolled out across UK hospitals in the future, more opportunities for specialist radiographers and radiologists may become available to operate them.
Written by Megan Smith
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