University researchers create innovative MRI technology

In a collaboration between scientists and designers, Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington researchers have developed new technology to make magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) more comfortable, accessible, and affordable.

graphic of prototype sitting down MRI machine
MRI prototype. Image credit: Sam Bryan

“Current MRI technology requires patients to lie down in a fully-enclosed tube to receive a scan,” says Ben Parkinson from the Robinson Research Institute. “These machines can be very loud and claustrophobic for patients, who often feel a lack of control over their experiences.”

Mr Parkinson is currently developing a superconducting MRI magnet, working alongside international researchers from Harvard, Yale, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Sao Paulo.  “We have come up with a way to make clinical quality head imaging MRI systems much more compact.  We believe this will help improve the accessibility and availability of MRI.

“However, we didn’t just want to focus on the MRI technology itself, we wanted to make sure the patient experience was improved too.”

Mr Parkinson worked with Dr Edgar Rodríguez and his team from the University’s School of Design Innovation to take the superconducting magnet design developed at the Robinson Research Institute and build it into an MRI system to create a better patient experience.

“We investigated how patients and clinicians would interact with this technology and then designed physical interfaces—everything from a seat to controls—to create a more comfortable patient experience,” Dr Rodríguez says. “This work was partly funded by KiwiNet with help from Wellington UniVentures, the University’s commercialisation office.”

Dr Rodríguez and his team created a prototype system. When using the MRI, patients sit in a chair which gently moves their head into the helmet-like scanner, leaving the rest of their body free. Either the MRI technician or the patient can control the leg rest, back support, head support, and chair height.

“Designing the head support was a big challenge, as the head shouldn’t move more than one millimetre in any direction for at least 20 minutes while being scanned. After a lot of tests, we have designed a patent-pending inflatable support system that controls the head position, yet remains comfortable for the patient.

“The scanner also has a window, so patients can see outside during the scan,” Dr Rodríguez says. “Taken together, our design significantly reduces anxiety and claustrophobia for patients who require a head MRI scan”

The team at the Robinson Research Institute is currently completing some further work on the magnet before the prototype is shipped to Minnesota for testing.

The project was recently honoured for its user design in the Strategy and Research Award category at the Core77 Design Awards, where awardees included such recognisable names as Google, Microsoft, and Starbucks. These awards celebrate the work of students and professionals in design across the globe every year.

“We are very happy and proud of this achievement,” Dr Rodriguez says. “These awards recognise global excellence in design, and we are honoured to be counted among those acknowledged at the awards.”