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Thursday, 15 January 2009 09:22

IBM demonstrates ultra-high resolution MRI microscope

Scientists at IBM Research in collaboration with Stanford University have demonstrated magnetic resonance imaging with volume resolution 100 million times finer than conventional MRI.

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One of the earliest stories that I wrote for iTWire was IBM's atomic art on display which showed the letters I-B-M spelled out using individual Xenon atoms, painstakingly put in place using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM).IBM's corporate name spelled out using Xenon atoms on a Nickel substrate.

Well, IBM research scientists have continued to push microscopy to its limits, and in collaboration with the Center for Probing the Nanoscale at Stanford University have just demonstrated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) with volume resolution 100 million times finer than conventional MRI.

If you listened to my podcast interview last year with IBM's Glen Wightwick, director of the IBM Australia Development Laboratory and IBM Australia Chief Technologist, you'll know that IBM has one of the world's largest pure and applied research organizations.

Before continuing, I should disclose that my interest in all this is not just as a once chemistry and science teacher but also as an IBM retiree who's very proud of the ongoing scientific achievements of my old employer. If you're of a similar mind, here's a feed to IBM's work in chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, materials and mathematical sciences, physics and services sciences, management & engineering: RSS feed button

IBM Research has a distinguished history in developing microscopes for nanoscale imaging and science. IBM researchers Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer received the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics for their invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, which can image individual atoms on electrically conducting surfaces.

Additionally, IBM has a track record dating back to the 1950s of improving healthcare through scientific achievements and collaboration with healthcare companies. In the last decade, IBM has developed a national digital mammography archive with the University of Pennsylvania (founded by polymath Benjamin Franklin); developed a clinical trial participant system with the famous Mayo Clinic.

IBM has also collaborated with The Scripps Research Institute to understand how influenza viruses mutate and proactively develop treatments; collaborated with European universities to develop better methods to decide on antiretroviral therapies for HIV; launched the World Community Grid, which has done projects on cancer, aids, dengue fever.

Among other things, IBM played a major role in developing the heart lung machine, invented the first continuous blood separator, used to treat critically ill leukemia patients.  IBM has also helped develop the field of relaxometry, which plays a role in medical magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), and invented the method for using excimer lasers that eventually became photorefractive (LASIK) eye surgery. To this day, IBM continues to make significant contributions to healthcare through technology innovations. Read more at IBM's healthcare and life sciences portal.

The researchers have just published their results (13 January 2009) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

This very significant step forward in tools for molecular biology and nanotechnology promises the ability to study complex 3D structures at the nano scale.

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may ultimately be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for new advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine.


The new IBM achievement stands to impact the study of materials – from proteins to integrated circuits – for which a detailed understanding of atomic structure is essential.

By extending MRI to such fine resolution, the scientists have created a microscope that, with further development, may be powerful enough to unravel the structure and interactions of proteins, paving the way for advances in personalized healthcare and targeted medicine.

"This technology stands to revolutionize the way we look at viruses, bacteria, proteins, and other biological elements," said IBM Fellow Mark Dean, vice president of strategy and operations for IBM Research.

The technique used is called magnetic resonance force microscopy (MRFM), which relies on detecting ultrasmall magnetic forces. In addition to its high resolution, the imaging technique has the further advantages that it is chemically specific, can "see" below surfaces and, unlike electron microscopy, is non-destructive to sensitive biological materials.

The IBM-led team has significantly boosted the sensitivity of MRFM and combined it with an advanced 3D image reconstruction technique, allowing them to pioneering use of MRI on nanometer-scale biological objects.

The technique was applied to a sample of tobacco mosaic virus and achieved resolution down to four nanometers. One nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter; a tobacco mosaic virus is 18 nm across.

"MRI is well known as a powerful tool for medical imaging, but its capability for microscopy has always been very limited," said Dan Rugar, manager of nanoscale studies, IBM Research.

"Our hope is that nano MRI will eventually allow us to directly image the internal structure of individual protein molecules and molecular complexes, which is key to understanding biological function."

The new device does not work like a conventional MRI scanner, which uses gradient and imaging coils. Instead, the researchers use MRFM to detect tiny magnetic forces as the sample sits on a microscopic cantilever – essentially a tiny sliver of silicon shaped like a diving board.

Laser interferometry tracks the motion of the cantilever, which vibrates slightly as magnetic spins in the hydrogen atoms of the sample interact with a nearby nanoscopic magnetic tip. The tip is scanned in three dimensions and the cantilever vibrations are analyzed to create a 3D image.

Click here to view a flickr album of photos taken using the new technique.

Photos with explanations can also be viewed at IBM NanoMRI of virus particles - 1 and IBM NanoMRI of virus particles - 2 and IBM Cantilever end with virus sample and IBM NanoMRI and  IBM NanoMRI closeup and IBM MRFM setup.

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.



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