MRI scanner for babies could help premature newborns

The world’s smallest MRI scanner is being used by specialists in Sheffield to improve the imaging of brain scans in tiny babies

Doctors at Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital are using a compact MRI scanner to monitor the brains of newborn babies. One of only two purpose-built neonatal MRI scanners in the world, it offers doctors a better view of the brain than an ultrasound. The other scanner, although no longer in use, is at Boston Childern’s Hospital in Massachusetts, USA.

Professor Paul Griffiths from the University of Sheffield who, together with Professor Martin Paley developed the scanner over a decade ago, told BBC News that MRI was better at showing the structures of the brain and abnormalities more clearly. “Ultrasound is cheap, portable and convenient, but the position of the fontanelles [the soft spots between skull bones which are yet to fuse in newborns] means there are some parts of the brain which cannot be viewed. MRI is able to show all of the brain and the surrounding anatomy, making the images easier to explain to parents. 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.”

So far, 40 babies have used the scanner, which is not much bigger than a washing machine and is located only metres away from the neonatal intensive care unit. Typically, MRI scans aren’t performed on babies because the risks involved in transferring and handling them outweigh the benefits.

However, the machines do not have regulatory approval for clinical use; both remain purely for research. Professor Griffiths said the next step would be for a trial to take place showing show that an MRI scan produces a better diagnosis than ultrasound in premature babies.