Health. How this super powerful MRI will try to understand the mysteries of the brain

Health.  How this super powerful MRI will try to understand the mysteries of the brain

Never before have scientists seen the human brain with such precision. This Tuesday, the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) unveiled the first images of the most powerful magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) device in the world, Iseult.

What is it about ?

Iseult is the culmination of 25 years of research, carried out by the CEA in partnership with private industry. This scanner has a magnetic field of 11.7 Tesla (T). To give you an idea of ​​what this represents: those used in hospitals have between 1.5 and 3 teslas!

The machine weighs 132 tonnes, measures five meters long, five meters in diameter and has 182 kilometers of conductive wires! It allows, in four minutes, to give an image of unequaled finesse of the brain, to reveal the smallest details.

For what use?

Iseult was not designed to be installed in a hospital, but to help fundamental research unravel the mechanisms of the brain and understand certain diseases that are still mysterious to doctors. This cutting-edge technology, designed by bioinformaticians, neuroscientists and industrial engineers, offers “greater resolution and clarity of images that allows us to learn about the microscopic environment of brain tissue, to observe neurons in action. It also makes it possible to observe components such as phosphorus or sodium,” explains Nicolas Boulant, project manager and research director at the CEA.

Having these images takes the eye down to the size of a handful of neurons (0.2 millimeter in plane and 1 mm in depth, i.e. only a few thousand neurons, or the equivalent of a thousandth of a drop of water !)

For who ?

The first images are photographs of 20 healthy volunteers, who were selected for a clinical trial. Its objective: to ensure that the machine was not toxic to humans. In the medium term, the Iseult MRI will be able to scan the brains of sick patients to better understand their pathology. Its use will be purely devoted to research, French or international, to then share its results with doctors.

The images open up the hope of new avenues in the understanding of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease. “In Parkinson’s disease, the diagnosis occurs too late, when half of the neurons involved in the disease have disappeared,” explains Nicolas Boulant. With the new precision of the Iseult MRI, he hopes to be able to decode the mechanisms that lead to the disease much earlier.

Scientists also hope to better understand Alzheimer’s. They will also track the effects of lithium on schizophrenia or bipolarity. “We know that these drugs work, but we don’t really know why. Being able to detect these elements using images could perhaps shed light on the role of these molecules,” hopes Olivier Boulant. It will thus be possible to precisely evaluate the distribution of lithium in the brain and to better understand its effectiveness, specifies the CEA. Other small molecules actively involved in brain metabolism, such as glucose and glutamate, can be closely monitored to better understand numerous brain pathologies.

The most powerful MRI in the world will also try to unravel another mystery: how does our brain work? How it encodes our learning, what are the neural signatures of our state of consciousness… “Monitor our results, it will blow your mind!” », Enthuses Olivier Boulant.

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