The world’s most powerful MRI reveals its first images of the human brain

“Check out our results, because they will blow your mind!” » Nicolas Boulant, research director of the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), is excited to present the first brain images obtained by his “baby” this Tuesday morning, for which he is responsible, the world’s most powerful MRI scanner (magnetic resonance imaging device) Iseult, that As it is named, it is the result of more than 20 years of research conducted by 200 people. “We are a little excited and very happy for all these people, who believed and achieved it. This is the start of a new venture in neuroscience, which looks very promising,” enthused Anne-Isabelle Attenver, Director of Basic Research at CEA.

Iseult has a unique magnetic field of 11.7 tesla, compared to 1.5 or 3 tesla for MRIs that hospitals are equipped with. As shown by the images, the results he obtains by “scanning” the human brain for a few minutes are more precise than those obtained by a 3 or 7 Tesla MRI.

Brain image obtained by three MRIs of 3, 7 and 11.7 Tesla.
Brain image obtained by three MRIs of 3, 7 and 11.7 Tesla. CEA

“By achieving resolution and contrast, we can obtain fascinating details on anatomical details, such as veins, inaccessible in lower magnetic fields,” explains Nicolas Boulant. About 20 healthy volunteers participated in the exercise, which was held inside a 132-ton magnet in a 5-meter-long cylinder. Without health effects? The results of the tests – especially the physicals – that Iseult “scans” on these patients are reassuring.

Previous pictures of pumpkins

In 2021, the CEA already released the first images of a whole… pumpkin, chosen for its multiple and varied textures. Its seeds and fibers were quite visible. This time, the volunteers had to stay still inside the magnet.

Being able to explore the human brain offers great potential in terms of research and health. Emmanuel Macron also hailed the X, “a great advance and immense hope for the study of our health”. Iseult can help us better understand the areas in the brain that are activated when carrying out certain tasks, including tasks of daily living, such as reading a book in particular.

A CEA MRI scanner in Saclay, a volunteer during a session in Iseult.
A CEA MRI scanner in Saclay, a volunteer during a session in Iseult. AFP/Alain Jocard

This device can also provide a better understanding of the functioning of neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.) or psychiatric diseases (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.). “Lithium is used as a drug to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but its action is not well understood. Iseult will be able to better map its effects and identify its role,” explains Nicolas Boulant.

The brains of sick patients won’t be discovered for many years, and the device isn’t intended to equip all hospitals, but its expertise could be used in the long run. The large-scale development of this “super MRI”, designed in collaboration with the University of Freiburg (Germany), will in any case face a major difficulty: its cost. A total of 70 million euros were invested, including 58 million euros for the construction of the central part of the magnet alone.

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