Skip to Content

View Additional Section Content

Published on October 18, 2012

University Hospital opens region's first functional MRI device for advanced clinical brain imaging

COLUMBIA, Mo. - University Hospital has acquired central Missouri's first functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system for diagnosing and treating patients with complex neurological conditions.

The functional MRI produces three-dimensional images of a patient's brain that show not only the physical structure of the brain but also detect neurological activity and illustrate which portions of the brain control specific activities. The system uses advanced electromagnetic and radiofrequency technology to create the images.

"While functional MRI has been used in scientific research since the 1990s, fMRI has only been used in health care for less than a decade," said Ajay Agarwal, MD, a radiologist at University of Missouri Health Care who is specially trained in using fMRI. "Functional MRI gives us an image of a patient's brain while also showing us precisely which areas control activity - such as speech, hearing and movement - with those areas 'lighting up' on the images. Locating specific regions of activity is especially important when treating patients with certain neurological conditions, such as brain tumors, epilepsy and arteriovenous malformation."

N. Scott Litofsky, MD, chief of the Division of Neurosurgery in the MU School of Medicine and director of neuro-oncology and radiosurgery at University of Missouri Health Care, uses fMRI images when determining treatment plans for patients with tumors in certain areas of the brain. Based on existing science, neurosurgeons such as Litofsky know generally which areas of the brain control which activities; for example, the occipital lobe at the back of the brain processes vision. However, the exact locations of those regions vary from person to person.

"If I have a patient with a tumor that I know is near the part of the brain that controls speech, then I want to know exactly how close it is," Litofsky said. "It could be a quarter-inch away, or the tumor might be invading that area. If the tumor is very close, I may remove part of it surgically and treat the remaining portion with radiation therapy. But if there is enough space between them, I may remove the entire tumor through surgery. Functional MRI can tell me exactly where the tumor is located and exactly where the speech area is located. That helps me achieve my goal of removing as much of the tumor as possible without affecting my patient's speech."

Like traditional magnetic resonance imaging, functional MRI uses high-strength electromagnets and radiofrequency sensors to produce a computer image of a person's internal anatomy. The MRI magnets cause different body tissues to produce slightly different radio waves, which are detected by radiofrequency sensors in the MRI. A computer converts those radio waves into a 3-dimensional image for physicians such as Agarwal and Litofsky to examine. Functional MRI takes an additional step by detecting differences in blood flow.

For example, when a patient speaks inside an fMRI machine, the device detects the extra blood that is sent to that region of the brain. A computer system illustrates this additional information on the MRI image by highlighting the active portion of the patient's brain using different colors, such as red and yellow, which indicate the amount of activity in that portion of the brain.

The functional MRI is used by the physicians at University Hospital's new Missouri Neurosciences Center, a new 28-bed hospital unit dedicated to the comprehensive treatment of neurological conditions. The center is the home of mid-Missouri's largest team of specialists in neurosurgery and neurology.