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The Most Compact MRI on the Planet Aids Premature Babies

Released on - 01/02/2017

The Most Compact MRI on the Planet Aids Premature Babies

Doctors in Sheffield are testing the use of a compact MRI to generate images of the brains of premature babies. The neonatal MRI machine is one of only two custom-built machines in the world.

The machine is based at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield and is a little bigger than a standard washing machine. It is situated next to the neonatal intensive care unit, which means that the specialist staff are immediately available in case any problems occur.

Currently an ultrasound is usually used to scan new-born brains. 

Up to now, around 40 babies have been scanned using the neonatal MRI machine. The Wellcome Trust partly funded the creation of the machine which was built by GE Healthcare.


One of the babies that was first to use the MRI machine was  Alice-Rose, she was born approximately 16 weeks premature and had two bleeds in her brain.

The parents of Alice Rose, Shaun and Rachael Westbrook, said the “MRI scan was very helpful.”

Shaun told me: "It's a much crisper image and a lot easier to understand than the ultrasound."

Rachael added: "It's been a rollercoaster since Alice-Rose was born on 6 November: not everything was fully formed, and she still weighs only 2lb 13oz (1.28kg).

"The MRI was reassuring as it meant you got a better look at her brain."

The MRI showed the structures of Alice Rose’s brain with a much clearer view. 


The benefits of ultrasound and MRI scans:

Using an ultrasound the sound waves are able to travel through the two soft spots between the bones (fontanelles).

Prof Griffiths said: "Ultrasound is cheap, portable and convenient, but the position of the fontanelles means there are some parts of the brain which cannot be viewed.”

"From a diagnostic point, the big advantage is that MRI is able to show a wider range of brain abnormalities, in particular those which result from a lack of oxygen or blood supply."

The MRI machines are also able to show any brain abnormalities with much more clarity compared to ultrasounds.


MRI scans are not often performed on extremely premature babies due to the dangers that are linked with the handling and transferring of an unwell baby can overshadow the benefits.

Prof Griffiths said: "MRI machines are huge, heavy objects which are sited in the basement or ground floor of hospitals, whereas maternity units are usually higher up, or in a completely different building, so it can mean a complicated journey to get a baby to and from the scanner."

Prof Griffiths and Prof Martin Paley came up with the idea for a dedicated neonatal scanner which was initially developed more than 10 years ago by them both at the University of Sheffield.


Two of the prototype 3 Tesla neonatal MRIs were finally built – one remains in Boston Children's Hospital in Massachusetts, but is no longer used.

Prof Griffiths said the next steps would be to carry out a trial of premature infants to demonstrate that the MRI creates a more enhanced diagnosis and whether it alters the medical management of the new-born children.

The cost of the neonatal MRI costs is not yet known, however if the systems do get commercialised, normal scanners are usually priced at a few hundred thousand pounds.


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