Portable ‘Battlefield MRI’ scanners could bring imaging to war zones, developing countries

The use of MRI has proven to be an invaluable diagnostic tool for assessing injuries in emergency situations—so long as those injured can make it to a hospital, that is.

"Standard MRI machines just can't go everywhere," said Michelle Espy, Battlefield MRI project leader at Los Alamos Laboratories in New Mexico. "Soldiers wounded in battle usually have to be flown to a large hospital and people in emerging nations just don't have access to MRI at all.”

Espy and her colleagues wanted to find a way to bring MRI to those in the line of fire, whether it be soldiers on the front lines or innocent civilians living in undeveloped and often dangerous parts of the world. Their solution was Battlfefield MRI, an ultra-low-field, lightweight and low-power MRI system able to be deployed to active war zones and the poorest developing nations.

Epsy and her team used high-sensitivity detectors called Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices, or SQUIDs, to maintain image quality in the field. "SQUIDs are so sensitive they'll respond to a truck driving by outside or a radio signal 50 miles away," said Al Urbaitis, an engineer with the Battlefield MRI project. The researchers say the prototype had to be built inside an insulated metal structure to prevent interference, but the latest version is equipped with external coils to help prevent signal interruption.

"We've been very happy with some of the initial imagery that's been produced from the lightweight, second generation system," said Espy. "It really shows that, with additional development, these systems could be relatively easy and inexpensive to deploy."