Medical Breakthroughs: 3-D Help for the Heart

MRI TECHNOLOGY: Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, has been around for 20 years, but it wasn't until a few years ago that engineers developed scanners fast enough to get accurate images of moving tissue.

Duke University's Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance Center is the first in the nation to use cardiovascular MRI. Doctors are able to distinguish dead or damaged heart muscle with cardiovascular MRI, thereby, allowing them to determine which treatment options would be best for a particular patient.

Cardiologists at Duke say conventional methods for imaging the heart can be vague in providing accurate information for guiding treatment. They believe about 30 percent of patients with heart disease can significantly benefit from treatment options as determined by the cardiovascular MRI.

A BETTER VIEW OF THE HEART: The MRI provides crisp three-dimensional views of the heart with no interference from adjacent bone or air. Doctors say image quality surpasses that of echocardiography, a more common imaging technique, and MRI is able to capture views that echocardiography cannot. Cardiac MRI can show physicians how well the heart muscle is contracting, as well as reveal areas of damaged tissue.

The non-invasive, radiation-free technique is especially useful for evaluating such conditions as coronary artery disease, heart failure and congenital heart disease.

"For the first time, we can look at the heart in a totally non-invasive way with a precision not available with other techniques. It is like an astronomer being able to use the Hubbell telescope for the first time to look at galaxies never visible before," said Pascal Goldschmidt, M.D., chief of the division of cardiology at Duke University.

HOW IT IS USED: During an MRI examination, a patient is placed in the cavity of a large doughnut-shaped magnet. The magnet triggers atomic nuclei in cells to vibrate and give off "radio" signals, which are then converted by computers into three-dimensional images of the heart and its structures.

The detail provided by the MRI makes a big difference. The exquisite definition of layers of tissue that form the heart and the membranes that surround the heart is unique to MRI. Doctors say with other techniques, damaged tissue can look dead, and being able to distinguish dead tissue from damaged and live tissue is crucial, especially with techniques like angioplasty or bypass surgery, which can re-supply tissue with nourishing blood flow. Doctors say MRI can take the guesswork out of diagnosing heart problems by seeing exactly what disease processes are going on. Doctors also say MRI not only provides better pictures of the heart, but also provides new and better forms of information, such as the metabolism of heart muscle cells.


Richard Merritt
Duke University
Medical Center News Office
Box 3354
Durham, NC 27710
(919) 660-1309

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