You Can See Your Brain Wobble With Every Heartbeat With This New MRI Technique

Well that certainly looks like a dangerous room to be in. Triff/Shutterstock

There’s plenty we don’t yet know about the brain, but at least we have a fairly decent arsenal of scientific tools in which to examine it without physically poking it. Now, thanks to Stanford University, the University of Auckland (UoA), and the Stevens Institute of Technology, we have another, mind-bogglingly high-resolution version tool in the box.

As first spotted by Science News, and as revealed in a paper published in Magnetic Resonance in Medicine, the team used something called “amplified MRI” to catch and essentially zoom in on the tiniest movements in the brain. As you can see in the gif below, it literally jiggles with every heartbeat, which is simultaneously unnerving, fascinating, and scientifically spectacular.

These motions are incredibly fine, by the way: less than the width of a single human hair. Normal MRI techniques can’t really pick them up in any detail, but in order to understand why, we probably need a quick recap on what MRI actually is.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines are, by all accounts, marvelous things. By applying a strong magnetic field to the water molecules in your body – or brain, of course – the protons attached to the hydrogen atoms line up, much like the needles on a compass.

Blood, pumping through the brain, viewed through normal MRI scans and the "amplified" variant. Stanford University & University of Auckland

Altogether, this creates a signal that’s easy to measure by technicians. This non-invasive, harmless imaging technique allows us to see what’s happening inside the brain in real time.

An oft-used variant is functional MRI (fMRI) scanning, which can, for example, track the blood in your brain. As it turns out, hemoglobin – the oxygen-carrying component of your blood – has different magnetic properties depending on how oxygenated it is.

fMRI can pick this up, and determine how blood is moving or changing in the brain. By doing this, researchers can see which parts are currently more active at one time than the other, depending on what the person is thinking about or doing.

The resolution on these techniques is limited, though, which is why the international team featured here decided to try something new.

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