Recounting the history of magnetic-resonance imaging may seem a diversion from the topic of the “Evolving Brain,” but Dr. Diego Martin says that MRI technology is crucial to our understanding of how the human brain works.

Martin’s talk will also set up presentations by two following speakers in the University of Arizona College of Science lecture series — Dr. G. Michael Lemole and Pélagie M. Beeson.

Lemole will talk about how neurosurgery has advanced through clinical trial and error but is increasingly aided by medical imaging. Beeson, who studies speech disorders, uses magnetic resonance imaging in her research.

The development of MRI is also an interesting human story, said Martin, the second speaker in the lecture series. Martin, chair of the Department of Medical Imaging at the UA College of Medicine, will speak Feb. 3 on “A Window into the Brain: Viewed through the Evolution of MRI Technology.”

The first “Evolving Brain” lecture, on Monday, is by insect scientist Nick Strausfeld, director of the UA Center for Insect Science and a Regents’ Professor of Neuroscience.

The first researcher to build a machine that applied the technique then known as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance to imaging human tissue was Dr. Raymond Damadian in 1971, said Martin, but when the Nobel Prize was given for development of the technique in 2003, his name was not mentioned.

“He was such an eclectic and forceful personality,” said Martin, that he may have harmed his chances for recognition by complaining about his exclusion even before the award was announced. “It’s almost Shakespearean in its concept of self-fulfilling prophecy,” Martin said.

The technology and use of the technique has improved tremendously over the past 40 years and holds immense promise for future therapeutic use and research into how the brain works, he said. Departments such as his advance the science daily, he said.

“In the last 10 years, medical imaging has exploded,” he said. “There is very little in terms of serious disease that doesn’t come through our team,” he said.

The brain has become “one of the more common targets,” Martin said. Imaging is used to diagnose and treat stroke, neuro-degenerative, inflammatory and infectious disease. It is also used to understand how the brain functions — “how we process information.”

The Medical Imaging Department uses an open-ended architecture that allows the surgeons, researchers, physicists and engineers who are part of the team to modify it continuously for specific purposes, Martin said.

MRI has surpassed other medical imaging techniques in its applications and safety, Martin said.

Unlike earlier imaging techniques, such as X-rays and CAT scans, MRI uses no “ionizing radiation” and has proven safe, so long as procedures to screen for metal objects are strictly followed.

The heart of an MRI machine is a giant electromagnet, capable of producing a magnetic field that is 30,000 to 60,000 times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field.

Hydrogen ions in the water molecules that make up most of our body’s mass line up along the magnetic field and spin and wobble at radio frequencies that can be read and translated into images.

Before imaging, the only way to study the brain was to dissect tissue after death or to investigate catastrophe. Somebody gets a nail through the brain. It induces a particular behavior. You make the correlation.

The MRI is, in effect, a big microscope that allows doctors and researchers to peer inside the brain without doing damage.

Paired with other noninvasive techniques, it will one day allow routine surgery without anesthetic, gowns, gloves, drapes, scalpels and blood, Martin predicts.

MR-guided, focused ultrasound will allow surgeons to heat and cook tissue without incisions.

Doctors have already successfully paired MRIs and sonic waves in treatment, said Martin. Fifty years from now, the therapy might be completely different but imaging will still guide the way, he said.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.