New 3D MRI Shows the Brain in Detail We've Never Seen Before

aMRI technology.

Courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology

Key Takeaways

  • Amplified magnetic resonance imaging amplifies tiny movements in the brain caused by the circulation of blood and cerebrospinal fluid.
  • The technology allows for vivid, anatomically correct images of the brain.
  • It could potentially be used to detect brain conditions ranging from aneurysms to hydrocephalus.

Since magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was first invented in the late 1970s, the technology has undergone various updates, further allowing doctors and researchers to better understand what's going on inside our bodies.

The most recent update, three-dimensional amplified MRI (3D aMRI), captures the brain in motion in real-time, and with unprecedented detail, making it a tool healthcare providers could use in diagnosing aneurysms and conditions that obstruct the brain.

The aMRI science is simple: it uses a natural process—the heartbeat—to monitor the brain. The brain's shape changes slightly, in rhythmic pulsations, as it receives blood from the heart. aMRI just magnifies the shape changes, which allows for clear and vivid visualization of the brain's movement.

The 2D version, developed in 2016 by researchers at Stanford University, was only able to track brain movement in the sagittal plane, which separates the body into left and right sides. Now, the 3D update allows visualization in the coronal, axial, and sagittal planes.

While it's not the first technology to visualize brain motion, the 3D aMRI produces a clearer image, study author Samantha J. Holdsworth, PhD, medical physicist, professor at the University of Auckland, tells Verywell. "The great thing about the amplified MRI is that you can see the anatomy—the fluid in the brain tissue, relative to it moving," she says. "You can see the entire anatomy moving together."

Researchers have collaborated since at least 2016 to realize and test aMRI technology. The current research was published in two papers: the first, which introduces the technology and compares it with the 2D version, was published in the journal Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in early May. The report on its development, calibration, and testing was published in the journal Brain Multiphysics.

The Invention of Amplified MRI

The aMRI update, which allows for vivid and precise anatomical imaging of the brain in motion, came about by trying to get rid of MRI motion and imprecision.

Normally in MRIs, doctors don't want to see motion—it just leads to a blurry picture. That's one of the reasons why they tell you to stay still while lying in an MRI machine. "I've spent all my life trying to treat for motion using post-processing methods," Holdsworth says.

It wasn't until her time as a postdoctoral fellow and then a senior research scientist at Stanford University that she and her colleagues started to wonder about the advantages of using—rather than correcting for—motion in MRI. "[We said,] 'Maybe that motion is important,'" she says. "'Maybe it can tell us something about the pathology of the brain.'"

After this change in perspective, Holdsworth and a colleague found the second ingredient to their invention through a TEDTalk—one that introduced a video motion processing algorithm developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that recorded and amplified physiological changes in real-time. It was then, Holdsworth says, that she and her colleague looked at each other and said, "That's the answer."

Immediately after, they ran to scan their own brains and process them with the MIT algorithm. "Overnight, we had produced this beautiful-looking image of the brain moving," Holdsworth says. And that's how all the pieces came together to create the 2D aMRI.

The original 2D aMRI was developed by Holdsworth, Mahdi Salmani Rahimi, Itamar Terem, and other collaborators at Stanford University. The newest version expands on the technology by putting it into a 3D space.

How it Works

When the brain receives blood from the heart through cerebral arteries, the surrounding blood vessels slightly expand. This expansion, mixed with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulation, causes a "minuscule brain deformation." By amplifying this "deformation," an aMRI is able to record the brain moving.

While it's important to remember that what you see in the videos is an exaggerated version, Mehmet Kurt, PhD, professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology and research collaborator, says that with aMRI, clinicians and researchers can depend on not only seeing the movements in detail but knowing that they reflect what's actually going on, too.

"The motion that is seen is amplified," he says. "But we have shown in one of the papers that that motion is a linear amplified version of the real motion, so you can use that to assess, relatively speaking, how much the brain moves."

What This Means For You

New aMRI technology is not yet currently available for use in clinical settings. But in the future, it may be available to help treat and diagnose certain brain conditions in new ways. Researchers are hopeful aMRI technology will help them better understand of a variety of brain disorders.

Potential For Clinical Use

MRI machines are already used to diagnose and monitor a range of conditions—everything from a torn ACL to tumors. But the aMRI, with its precision and unique strengths, could help doctors detect the hardest-to-spot of brain conditions—sometimes before they cause harm.

Kurt says that in theory, any physiological change in a brain would affect its motion compared to a control. "The most obvious and extreme examples of that are obstructive brain disorders," he says, such as in hydrocephalus, syringomyelia, and aneurysms.

Right now, Kurt is collaborating with colleagues on a patient with Chiari malformation type 1, a structural defect in the base of the skull and cerebellum. "It's been hypothesized that that will change the physiological motion," Kurt says. "We're working to see if we can come up with diagnostic markers for it in the brain."

Currently, the technique is only being used in numerous research projects. Scientists are testing its use in measuring the effects of mild traumatic brain injury or brain pressure. They hope this technique, coupled with brain modeling, could be a noninvasive way of measuring brain pressure in patients like children with idiopathic intracranial hypertension—who typically need invasive surgeries.

Physician and collaborating researcher Miriam Scadeng, MD, shared high hopes for aMRI in a press release. “This fascinating new visualization method could help us understand what drives the flow of fluid in and around the brain," she said. "It will allow us to develop new models of how the brain functions, that will guide us in how to maintain brain health and restore it in disease or disorder.”

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  1. University of Washington Department of Radiology. Featured History: Magnetic resonance imaging. Updated 2014.

  2. Terem I, Dang L, Champagne A, et al. 3D amplified MRI (aMRI). Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. doi:10.1002/mrm.28797

  3. Abderezaei J, Pionteck A, Terem I, et al. Development, calibration, and testing of 3D amplified MRI (aMRI) for the quantification of intrinsic brain motion. Brain Multiphysics, 100022. doi:10.1016/j.brain.2021.100022