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Using Nano-Magnets to Enhance Medical Imaging

Nanoscale magnets in the form of iron-containing molecules might be used to improve the contrast between healthy and diseased tissue in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)—as long as the concentration of nanomagnets is carefully managed—according to a new report* by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and collaborators. Molecular nanomagnets are a new class of MRI contrast agents that may offer significant advantages, such as versatility in design, over the compounds used today.

Contrast agents are used to highlight different tissues in the body or to help distinguish between healthy and diseased tissue. NIST is working with two universities and a hospital to design, produce and test nanomolecules that might make MRI imaging more powerful and easier to perform. The new paper resolves a debate in the literature by showing that iron-containing magnets just two nanometers wide, dissolved in water, do provide reasonable contrast in non-clinical MRI images—as long as the nanomagnet concentration is below a certain threshold. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter.) Previous studies by other research groups had reached conflicting conclusions on the utility of molecular nanomagnets for MRI, but without accounting for concentration. NIST scientists, making novel magnetic measurements, were able to monitor the molecules’ decomposition and magnetic properties as the composition was varied.

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