Neuroscience researchers have long wished for improved functional mapping of the brain--for the ability to create better images showing the brain in action, rather than just its structure. In the past, these researchers have depended mainly on positron emission tomography (PET), but safety concerns posed by the radioactive contrast agents involved, along with the relatively coarse resolution and slow speed of PET imaging, have limited the usefulness of their results.

But now, a new, naturally occurring contrast agent that is used not with PET but with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is brightening prospects. Coupled with recently developed high-speed MRI techniques, this new agent is helping researchers create functional brain maps that display detail and sequential processes never before seen.

The newly found contrast agent is hemoglobin, present throughout the body. MRI researchers are taking advantage of the slight difference in magnetic properties between hemoglobin carrying oxygen and hemoglobin from which...

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