An Introduction To Medical Imaging Modalities For Biomedical Beginners

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Medical imaging refers to the techniques and processes used to create images of the human body (or parts thereof) for clinical purposes (medical procedures seeking to reveal, diagnose or examine disease) or medical science (including the study of normal anatomy and function). As a discipline and in its widest sense, it is part of biological imaging and incorporates radiology (in the wider sense), radiological sciences, endoscopy, (medical) thermography, medical photography and microscopy (e.g. for human pathological investigations). Measurement and recording techniques which are not primarily designed to produce images, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG) and others, but which produce data susceptible to be represented as maps (i.e. containing positional information), can be seen as forms of medical imaging.

In the clinical context, medical imaging is generally equated to Radiology or “clinical imaging” and the medical practicer’s responsible for interpreting (and sometimes acquiring) the images is a radiologist. Diagnostic radiography (see Radiography) designates the technical aspects of medical imaging and in particular the acquisition of medical images. The radiographer or radiologic technologist is usually responsible for acquiring medical images of diagnostic quality, although some radiological interventions are performed by radiologists.

As a field of scientific investigation, medical imaging constitutes a sub-discipline of biomedical engineering, medical physics or medicine depending on the context: Research and development in the area of instrumentation, image acquisition (e.g. radiography), modelling and quantification are usually the preserve of biomedical engineering, medical physics and computer science; Research into the application and interpretation of medical images is usually the preserve of radiology and the medical sub-discipline relevant to medical condition or area of medical science (neuroscience, cardiology, psychiatry, psychology, etc) under investigation. Many of the techniques developed for medical imaging also have scientific and industrial applications.

Medical imaging is often perceived to designate the set of techniques that produce images of the internal aspect of the body (without having to open it). In this restricted sense, medical imaging can be seen as the solution of mathematical inverse problems. This means that cause (the properties of living tissue) is inferred from effect (the observed signal). In the case of ultrasonography the probe consists of ultrasonic pressure waves and echoes inside the tissue show the internal structure. In the case of projection radiography, the probe is X-ray radiation which is absorbed at different rates in different tissue types such as bone, muscle and fat.

Modern imaging technology

Fluoroscopy produces real-time images of internal structures of the body in a similar fashion to radiography, but employs a constant input of x rays. Contrast media, such as barium, iodine, and air are used to visualize internal organs as they work. Fluoroscopy is also used in image-guided procedures when constant feedback during a procedure is required.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

A Magnetic Resonance Imaging instrument (MRI scanner) uses powerful magnets to polarise and excite hydrogen nuclei (single proton)) in water molecules in human tissue, producing a detectable signal which is spatially encoded resulting in images of the body. In brief, MRI involves the use of three kinds of electromagnetic field: a very strong (of the order of units of teslas) static magnetic field to polarize the hydrogen nuclei, called the static field; a weaker time-varying (of the order of 1 kHz) for spatial encoding, called the gradient field(s); and a weak radio-frequency (RF) field for manipulation of the hydrogen nuclei to produce measurable signals, collected through an RF antenna. Like CT, MRI traditionally creates a 2D image of a thin “slice” of the body and is therefore considered a tomographic imaging technique. Modern MRI instruments are capable of producing images in the form of 3D blocks, which may be considered a generalisation of the single-slice, tomographic, concept. Unlike CT, MRI does not involve the use of ionizing radiation and is therefore not associated with the same health hazards; for example there are no known long term effects of exposure to strong static fields (this is the subject of some debate; see ‘Safety’ in MRI) and therefore there is no limit on the number of scans to which an individual can be subjected, in contrast with X-ray and CT. However, there are well identified health risks associated with tissue heating from exposure to the RF field and the presence of implanted devices in the body, such as pace makers. These risks are strictly controlled as part of the design of the instrument and the scanning protocols used. CT and MRI being sensitive to different properties of the tissue, the appearance of the images obtained with the two techniques differ markedly. In CT, X-rays must be blocked by some form of dense tissue to create an image, therefore the image quality when looking at soft tissues will be poor. An MRI can ONLY “see” hydrogen based objects, so bone, which is calcium based, will be a void in the image, and will not affect soft tissue views. This makes it excellent for peering into the brain and joints.

MRI, or “NMR imaging” as it was originally known, has only been in use since the early 1980’s. Effects from long term, or repeated exposure, to the intense static magnetic field are not known.

Nuclear medicine
Main article: Nuclear Medicine
Images from gamma cameras are used in Nuclear Medicine to detect regions of biological activity that are often associated with diseases. A short lived isotope, such as 131I is administered to the patient. These isotopes are more readily absorbed by biologically active regions of the body, such as tumors or fracture points in bones.

Positron emission tomography (PET)
Main article: Positron Emission Tomography
Positron emission tomography is used to detect certain brain diseases. Similarly to nuclear medicine, a short-lived isotope, such as 18F, is incorporated into a substance used by the body such as glucose which is absorbed by the tumor of interest. PET scans are often viewed along side computed tomography scans, which can be performed on the same equipment without moving the patient. This allows the tumors detected by the PET scan to be viewed next to the rest of the patient’s anatomy detected by the CT scan.

Projection radiography
Radiographs, more commonly known as x-rays, are often used to determine the type and extent of a fracture as well as for detecting pathological changes in the lungs. With the use of radio-opaque contrast media, such as barium, they can also be used to visualize the structure of the stomach and intestines – this can help diagnose ulcers or certain types of colon cancer.

Tomography is the method of imaging a single plane, or slice, of an object resulting in a tomogram. There are several forms of tomography:

Linear tomography: This is the most basic form of tomography. The X-ray tube moved from point “A” to point “B” above the patient, while the cassette holder (or “bucky”) moves simultaneously under the patient from point “B” to point “A.” The fulcrum, or pivot point, is set to the area of interest. In this manner, the points above and below the focal plane are blurred out, just as the background is blurred when panning a camera during exposure. No longer carried out and replaced by computed tomography.

Poly tomography: This was a complex form of tomography. With this technique, a number of geometrical movements were programmed, such as hypocycloidic, circular, figure 8, and elliptical. Philips Medical Systems [1] produced one such device called the ‘Polytome.’ No longer carried out, replaced by computed tomography.

Zonography: This is a variant of linear tomography, where a limited arc of movement is used. It is still used in some centres for visualising the kidney during an intravenous urogram (IVU)

Orthopantomography (OPT): The only common tomographic examination in use. This makes use of a complex movement to allow the radiographic examination of the mandible, as if it were a flat bone. It is often referred to as a “Panaray”, but this is incorrect, as it is a trademark of a specific company’s equipment

Computed tomography (CAT or CT): (Main article: computed tomography): A CT scan, also known as a CAT scan (Computed Axial Tomography scan), is a helical tomography (latest generation), which traditionally produces a 2D image of the structures in a thin section of the body. It uses X-rays. It has a greater ionizing radiation dose burden than projection radiography, repeated scans should be limited.

Main article: Medical ultrasonography
Medical ultrasonography uses high frequency sound waves of between 2.0 to 10.0 megahertz that are reflected by tissue to varying degrees to produce a 2D image, traditionally on a TV monitor. This is often used to visualize the fetus in pregnant women. Other important uses include imaging the abdominal organs, heart, male genitalia, and the veins of the leg. While it may provide less anatomical information than techniques such as CT or MRI, it has several advantages which make it ideal as a first line test in numerous situations, in particular that it studies the function of moving structures in real-time. It is also very safe to use, as the patient is not exposed to radiation and the ultrasound does not appear to cause any adverse effects, although information on this is not well documented. It is also relatively cheap and quick to perform. Ultrasound scanners can be taken to critically ill patients in intensive care units, avoiding the danger caused while moving the patient to the radiology department. The real time moving image obtained can be used to guide drainage and biopsy procedures. Doppler capabilities on modern scanners allow the blood flow in arteries and veins to be assessed.

Clinical imaging or biological imaging techniques

Electron microscopy
Main article: Electron microscope
The electron microscope is a microscope that can magnify very small details with high resolving power due to the use of electrons as the source of illumination, magnifying at levels up to 2,000,000 times.

Electron microscopy is employed in anatomic pathology to identify organelles within the cells. Its usefulness has been greatly reduced by immunhistochemistry but it is still irreplaceable for the diagnosis of kidney disease, identification of immotile cilia syndrome and many other tasks

Creation of three-dimensional images
Recently, techniques have been developed to enable CT, MRI and ultrasound scanning software to produce 3D images for the physician. Traditionally CT and MRI scans produced 2D static output on film. To produce 3D images, many scans are made, then combined by computers to produce a 3D model, which can then be manipulated by the physician. 3D ultrasounds are produced using a somewhat similar technique.

With the ability to visualize important structures in great detail, 3D visualization methods are a valuable resource for the diagnosis and surgical treatment of many pathologies. It was a key resource (and also the cause of failure) for the famous, but ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Singaporean surgeons to separate Iranian twins Ladan and Laleh Bijani in 2003. The 3D equipment was used previously for similar operations with great success.

Other proposed or developed techniques include:

diffuse optical tomography
electrical impedance tomography
optoacoustic imaging
corneal topography
Heidelberg retinal tomography
optical coherence tomography
scanning laser ophthalmoscopy
Some of these techniques are still at a research stage and not yet used in clinical routines.

Non-diagnostic imaging
Neuroimaging has also been used in experimental circumstances to allow people (especially disabled persons) to control outside devices, acting as a brain computer interface.

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