On the battlefield, one of the most common injuries are those to the head and brain. In a time of war, getting an injured soldier a proper diagnosis with an MRI, a magnetic imaging resonance machine, can be a great feat. MRIs are huge machines that are very expensive and often very far away from the battlefield.

Thanks to engineers and scientists at Los Alamos National, with some funding from the Department of Energy, a lower-tech, portable “battlefield MRI” is being designed that could potentially be deployed to war zones, as well as to poor and developing countries. This machine would be able to diagnose injuries and diseases much more easily and at a lower cost.

Engineer Al Urbaitis and scientist Per E. Magnelind are two of about 10 researchers working on the LANL campus as part of what is called the SQUID team. SQUID stands for superconducting quantum interference device. Standard MRI machines, like those found in hospitals, use a highly magnetic field to align the protons in water molecules to create magnetic resonance signals, which the machine scans and turns into high-quality images.

The large machines are costly to make, use great amounts of energy, and also require cryogen liquids, such as liquid nitrogen, to cool them down. MRI machines also exert major force on metal items, which could be an issue if shrapnel or metal implants may be present in a patient.

The LANL team is working towards producing suitable body issue images using significantly lower magnetic fields, much like the Earth’s. SQUID devices have the most sensitive magnetic field detectors and would used in the smaller MRI machines.

Urbaitis claims SQUIDs “are very, very sensitive to the existence of any magnetic field, and a magnetic field is generated whenever you have a nerve impulse, whenever a current is generated […] they are sensitive to everything.” This is due to using something called a Josephson junction, allowing a SQUID to detect a change of energy as much as 100 billion times weaker than the electromagnetic energy that can move a compass needle.

One major issue is that SQUIDs are so sensitive to outside interference, even to noise from passing vehicles and radio signals. This has caused the new machines to be built and tested in large, shielded rooms. According to scientist Magnelind, the SQUID team’s final goal is to create brain imaging that works even in “an unshielded environment.”

Once the portable MRI can be utilized in an unshielded form, the machine could be sent out to military frontlines, but for now, the closest MRI for American soldiers in the Middle East is located in Germany.

“An MRI in general is very useful in picking up things like brain trauma […] we have gotten very good at protecting our soldiers from lots of different trauma, but one thing we are not very good at is protecting them from shock,” says Urbaitis.

The use of a portable MRI would not only be limited to combat environments. SQUIDs could be used to diagnose concussions in athletes and sent to developing countries. Other uses include the treatment of hydrocephalus, and a new way to scan patients in parts of Africa.

Currently, medical providers in Africa use CT (computed tomography) scans and X-rays on young patients which expose them to unnecessary levels of radiation. A portable MRI machine would eliminate the excess exposure and help physicians decide treatment.

Urbaitis says that the idea of low magnetic field MRI “has been around since the beginning of the early 2000s and I think on a small scale it would take a couple of years to make it into a product. But to make it more generally available, I think it is further out.”

One day the portable MRI could be a help to healthcare providers, military or otherwise, all over the world.

The Archuleta Law Firm handles injury, death, and medical malpractice claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act. We handle claims in all 50 States and Worldwide. Our focus is helping the families of Military Servicemembers and Veterans in their claims involving Military Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics and Veterans (VA) Hospitals, Doctors and Clinics. We handle claims involving the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.