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Lauterbur, Mansfield Awarded Nobel Prize for Work with MRI

By Nicholas Wade

The New York Times -- This year’s Nobel prize for medicine has been awarded to two pioneers of magnetic resonance imaging, a widely used procedure to visualize the body’s tissues without using radiation.

The recipients are Dr. Paul C. Lauterbur of the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Sir Peter Mansfield of the University of Nottingham in England.

The two researchers took a technique used by chemists to study solutions and developed it into a way of imaging the human body, which, appearances to the contrary, is mostly water. Unlike CAT scanning machines, which use radiation, magnetic resonance imaging probes the body only with magnetic fields and pulses of radio waves.

MRI has replaced invasive techniques for examining joints, the brain, and other vital organs. The technique is now so sensitive that it can locate the site where different mental tasks are performed in the living brain, essentially by tracking the extra blood flow to the brain’s active regions.

Lauterbur, a physical chemist then at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Long Island, published his crucial paper on the new technique in 1973. In the traditional fate of truly innovative ideas, it was at first rejected by Nature, a leading scientific journal. Lauterbur persuaded the editors to reverse their decision.

His idea concerned a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, spectroscopy, in which molecules are entrained in a strong magnetic field and zapped with radio waves. Chemists went to great pains to create a uniform magnetic field, under which the molecules gave the clearest signal. Lauterbur realized that the fuzziness in the signal in fact contained information about the spatial distribution of the contributing molecules. By applying a varying magnetic field, he could obtain the spatial information to build an image of molecules arranged in some structure.