50 years of MRI in Nottingham – from initial research to UK’s most powerful scanner

Monday, 06 November 2023

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Sir Peter Mansfield publishing his first research paper which led to the development of magnetic resonance imaging MRI – an invention that has revolutionised medicine, and that the University of Nottingham continues to advance.

A classically trained physicist, Mansfield realised he could exploit the phenomenon of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to create cross-sectional images of living tissue. He developed a safe and non-invasive technique to create images of soft tissue and organs in a 'slice' of the human body in spectacular detail, revolutionizing medical diagnosis and changing how the human brain is studied. His first paper on the topic of MRI was published in the Journal of Physics: C in November 1973.

This research was the start of the development of MRI that has since changed the face of modern medicine, enabling doctors to see detailed images of the interior of the living body without the potentially harmful effects of radiation or surgery. MRI can now detect in great detail the presence of cancer and signs of damage in the body’s bones, tissues and organs. Today, MRI scanners are used in hospitals all over the world and over 60 million investigations with MRI are carried out every year.

Working alongside Sir Peter Mansfield on MRI was hugely exciting, I don’t think any of us could foresee the transformative tool it was to become. MRI has this habit of reinventing itself every 5 or 10 years with yet something else it can do that no-one had thought about and that continues to be a certainty.
Professor Peter Morris who worked with Sir Peter Mansfield for almost 40 years

The Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre is now the home of MRI at the University of Nottingham and it has gone from strength to strength since it opened in 1991, with academics exploring the capabilities of MRI to reveal new insights into the human body – from placental blood flow, to how the gut works to digest food, to further understanding the complexities of the brain.

Academics working in the SPMIC are now also taking brain imaging beyond MRI and new wearable OPM-MEG technology has been developed to measure the function of the brain whilst a person is moving or undertaking tasks.

The unique wearable brain scanner system uses small LEGO-brick-sized sensors – called optically pumped magnetometers (OPMs) – to measure magnetic fields generated by cellular activity in the brain – a technique called Magnetoencephalography, or MEG. These sensors are incorporated into a lightweight helmet. The unique design means the system can be adapted to fit anyone, from newborns to adults, and sensors can be placed much closer to the head, dramatically enhancing data quality. This is a step change from conventional brain scanners that are large and fixed and require the patient to stay very still during scanning.

Professor Richard Bowtell, Head of the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre
MRI is now so intrinsic to modern medicine it is hard to believe it started here only 50 years ago. We are extremely proud of Sir Peter Mansfield’s work and continue to build on his legacy with continuing research which takes his invention to new levels.
Professor Richard Bowtell, Director of the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre

The University of Nottingham continues to lead the world in MRI and has recently been awarded £29.1 million to establish the UK’s most powerful Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner as a national facility. This scanner will give researchers and doctors unprecedented insights into brain function and the mechanisms of human disease.

The funding award, from UK Research and Innovation, is thought to be the largest ever single award received by the University. It is part of a 3-year £481 million injection of funding into the UK’s research and innovation infrastructure, to support ground-breaking research to address global challenges.

The University of Nottingham will work with teams across the UK to establish the 11.7T Tesla MRI scanner as a national facility that will underpin the UK’s goal of retaining its position as a world leader in ultra-high field for brain imaging and spectroscopy.

The new facility is hugely exciting and will be an extension to the SPMIC that will be of value across the biomedical community, including the life science and healthcare industries. I think Sir Peter would be extremely proud of that the research he started 50 years ago continues to make a positive impact around the world.
Professor Richard Bowtell

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More information is available from Richard Bowtell

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
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Notes to editors:

About the University of Nottingham

Ranked 32 in Europe and 16th in the UK by the QS World University Rankings: Europe 2024, the University of Nottingham is a founding member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience, and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement.

Nottingham was crowned Sports University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024 – the third time it has been given the honour since 2018 – and by the Daily Mail University Guide 2024.

The university is among the best universities in the UK for the strength of our research, positioned seventh for research power in the UK according to REF 2021. The birthplace of discoveries such as MRI and ibuprofen, our innovations transform lives and tackle global problems such as sustainable food supplies, ending modern slavery, developing greener transport, and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

The university is a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally - and our graduates are the second most targeted by the UK's top employers, according to The Graduate Market in 2022 report by High Fliers Research.

We lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, in partnership with Nottingham Trent University, a pioneering collaboration between the city’s two world-class institutions to improve levels of prosperity, opportunity, sustainability, health and wellbeing for residents in the city and region we are proud to call home.

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