The Culture of Chemistry welcomes 2006 - now that the grading is done and vacation has begun for me in earnest.
Graham at "Over My Med Body" notes that the total radiation dose in a year from natural background sources is much larger than the dose from any single test. He notes that ultrasound and MRIs are exceptions: ultrasound uses sound waves, and MRIs use magnets. What exactly do those magnets do?
The nuclei of many atoms have "spin" states. Like quarks which have a property called by physicists "color" but are not actually different colors like socks, spin is an instrinsic property of nuclei but this does not necessarily mean that the atoms are spinning like the earth! Hydrogen atoms, of which there are many in the human body (more than 10 pounds worth) have two spin states. Not every atom has multiple spin states. Carbon-12 (the most common form of carbon) has only one spin state. So what happens in an MRI? Radiation (yes, radiation, just very, very low energy radiation) in the form of radio waves forces the hydrogen nuclei to change state to the higher energy spin state. The time it takes for the hydrogens to relax to their low energy spin state is measured. There are two ways for the hydrogen atom to "lose spin", one is called spin-lattice relaxation (T1), the other is spin-spin relaxation (T2). Hydrogen atoms in different environments relax at different rates. Hydrogens in fatty tissue, for example, have very different relaxation times than watery tissue.
So if the changes happen because of radiation, what are the magnets for? It turns out that the separation between spin states depends on the magnitude of the magnet field, as well as the magnetic moment of the nucleus. In the earth's field, the energy between spin states is too small to do the trick of exciting them up to the higher energy state and watching them fall down. You need a high magnet field to do this.
13 hours ago in Variety of Life