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How Medical Imaging Works

Monday, 27 March 2017

  • Medical Imaging Dr Williams with pupils
  • Medical Imaging Explaining the technology
  • Medical Imaging How it works
  • Medical Imaging A demonstration

Dr Heather Williams, Senior Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at Central Manchester University Hospitals and Honorary Lecturer in the Centre for Imaging Sciences at Manchester University, delivered a fascinating talk on medical imaging, the latest in a series of free Arts and Science lectures held at Bolton School Girls’ Division. 

Entitled “Seeing Inside - Imaging the Structure and Function of the Human Body", the presentation traced the history of medical imaging and how it works. Referencing Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and one of the first anatomical theatres at the University of Padua in 1594, where people would go for a night out to watch bodies being cut up, Dr Williams then fast forwarded to Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays in 1895, which gained him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901. The next significant development then came from Sir Godfrey Hounsfield who helped develop the field of X-ray computed tomography and the CT scanner, which allows you to build up 3D images, adding depth to the simple X-ray.  

The work of Damadian, Lauterbur and Mansfield in discovering magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for which the last two won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, was then lauded for enabling better imaging of soft tissues and not just bones. Thanks to Mansfield, we can see people’s brain centres switch on as they carry out different mental tasks. Acknowledgement was also made of the Curies and Becquerel, who were first to discover evidence of radioactivity; and the work in nuclear medicine of two key players, de Hevesy for his work with radioactive tracers and their journey through the body, and Anger who invented a precursor of the modern gamma camera; Anderson was also commended for his discovery of the positron in 1932, which further aids medical imaging. 

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) was, Dr Williams pointed out, her favourite thing. PET work is “the new kid on the block” and allows medics to check for a range of things depending on what you inject the patient with. To her delight, the University of Manchester, she said, had taken delivery of a PET/MR system within the last six months. 

Dr Williams said in her attempts to make sure pictures of patients are top quality so that the doctors can trust what they see, she works with an incredibly skilled group of people, including technologists, pharmacists, nurses, radiologists and nuclear physicists.

Concluding the lecture, Dr Williams used an old Hindu proverb about five blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and describing what it was that they were touching – all had a different but plausible story to tell.  Likewise, medical imaging comprises many parts which make up the whole – for example, imaging the heart can include angiograms, CT angiography, MRI, ultrasound and PET scanners as well as nuclear medicine gamma cameras.  Put together, these give health professionals a good understanding of what is going on inside a body but Dr Williams pointed out that none of us look quite like a text book drawing and that it takes great skill to detect something unusual. She also reflected on how each procedure needs to be beneficial to the patient, as radiation always causes some damage to our bodies which needs to be minimised, although we can bear small doses and we should remember that we are exposed to natural radiation on a daily basis.

You can watch the full lecture, through these links:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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