The world’s most powerful MRI scanner is on the way which according to the Chinese scientists could reveal the human “soul”. The breakthrough technology might be strong enough to observe the structure and activities of every neuron in a living human brain and improve research into neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
Generally, hospital MRI scanners generate between 1.5 and three tesla – the unit of magnetic strength named after the Serbian-American physicist Nikola Tesla – although more powerful machines generating up to 11 tesla have been built in the US and Europe. The new Chinese device could generate up to 14 tesla.
The design and development of the ultrahigh-field technology are expected to complete in the next five years. The brain scanner could generate an extremely strong magnetic field to observe for the first time the structure and activities of every neuron in a living human brain.
Human tissues such as organs, muscles, and brain contain a large amount of water. In a strong magnetic field, the nuclei of hydrogen in water molecules, for instance, align and spin in the same direction.
While existing MRI scanners can only resonate hydrogen nuclei, at 14 tesla, the magnetic field would be strong enough to excite the nuclei of other, heavier elements. Molecules containing sodium, phosphorus, and potassium, for instance, play important roles in the transmission of electrochemical signals from one neuron to another.
The projected scanner would not only produce a snapshot with details far beyond what existing instruments can provide, but also track various types of chemical agents including sodium, phosphorus, and potassium that pass critical signals along neural fiber networks to study consciousness and brain-related diseases such as Parkinson’s.
Professor Lu Haidong, a brain scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at Beijing Normal University, said that MRI technology generally had an important advantage over other imaging methods like X-rays.MRIs did not emit a radioactive beam, so did not harm the tissue, he said.
Studies by health authorities such as the US Food and Drug Administration have found no evidence of lasting side effects on patients who have had MRI scans. But the strength of magnetic fields in medical practice has only been one-tenth of the power of the planned device.
“No human beings have been exposed to a magnetic field as strong as 14 teslas,” Lu said.“Some side effects such as internal heating may occur. The safety risk must receive a stringent evaluation before scanning a living human,” he said.
Wu Shengjun, a professor of quantum physics in Nanjing University in east China’s Jiangsu province, said he also had concerns about the possible effects on health.
“It is just a hunch, there is no evidence suggesting the device will be unsafe, but I will definitely not go in there,” he said.
The soul – or human consciousness – remains the stuff of heated debate, the researcher said. From religious leaders to philosophers to ordinary individuals, many people believe it exists and has theories to describe or explain it. But the scientific community has not found any physical evidence to support these claims.
“We may for the first time capture a full picture of human consciousness or even the essence of life itself. Then we can define them and explain how they work in precise physical terms – just like Newton and Einstein defined and explained the universe,” he said.
The cell body of a neuron has a diameter of four to 100 micrometers. The most powerful MRI machines today cannot see objects smaller than 1mm (1,000 micrometers) in diameter, but the resolution of the new device in Shenzhen will be up to one micrometer, the researcher said.
The construction of an 11 Tesla device was recently finished in France, but it could still only resonate hydrogen nuclei – not generate stronger fields – because the superconducting material used was the same as in standard hospital machines.
The project team assured that safety was a priority and no human would enter the device until extensive tests on animals like monkeys had been conducted to prove that the experiment would do no harm to health.