Fall 2023

MRI on the move

A first-of-its-kind compact MRI machine—one that can fit in the bed of a truck—could make this advanced imaging technology available to more people


If you want to get inside someone’s head, one of modern medicine’s go-to tools is here to help.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners use the power of magnets and radio waves to create images of structures inside a person’s head, including their brain, blood vessels, skull, ears, eyes, and nerves. These images can help doctors diagnose disease, guide treatments, and monitor recovery.

But getting inside someone’s head requires them to get inside the MRI machine first, which isn’t always feasible. The machines are incredibly expensive and almost impossibly large (weighing well over five tons), and not every medical facility has a specialized space to house one. The result is that MRI capabilities are often available only in middle- and upper-class areas.

Michael Garwood, PhD, the Malcolm B. Hanson Endowed Chair in Radiology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and associate director of the U’s Center for Magnetic Resonance Research, is on a mission to make MRIs more accessible to more people.

His solution? A portable MRI.

“Hopefully, this technology will allow underserved communities all over the world to enjoy the benefits of MRI imaging.”
Michael Garwood, PhD

Together with colleagues at the U and in New Zealand and Brazil, Garwood has created a first-of-its-kind compact MRI machine, one that can be loaded into the bed of a truck and taken where it’s needed.

“This MRI scanner will be transportable for imaging brain function and structure almost anywhere, for almost anyone,” he says. “Hopefully, this technology will allow underserved communities all over the world to enjoy the benefits of MRI imaging.”

Garwood says scans of lemons and water bottles from the new machine have yielded high-quality images that are comparable to those  from traditional, stationary MRIs. He expects pilot studies involving people to begin soon. In the future, he says, widespread portable MRI availability could allow the technology to be used in a preventative capacity, much like mammograms are used today.

“You’d be able to monitor changes in the brain over time to detect the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, for example,” he says. “And by seeing changes early, doctors would be able to intervene when there’s still time.”

Find out how to support this work by contacting Kristen Rasmussen of the University of Minnesota Foundation at kristenr@umn.edu or 612-625-5192.