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Quantum Computing Research Leads to Improved MRIs

Fundamental research in physics can seem pretty far removed from everyday life at times. Although large projects like the LHC or the Very Large Telescope may be awe-inspiring, the tangible benefits of such research may seem distant.

But science research can lead to unexpected results, and innovation in one field can have a large impact on another. Over the past 10 years, scientists having been diligently working on creating powerful quantum computers. Although quantum computers haven't realized their full potential, this research has inspired a new technique in medical imaging.

Thanks to basic research, scientists have developed a different way of using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to take 3-d images of brains, bones, and even oil-bearing soil.

A 3-D MRI image of a pork rib using a new technique targeting phosphorous atoms. Video Courtesy Meredith Frey et al./PNAS/Yale University.

Traditional MRI techniques target hydrogen atoms found throughout the body. Most of the time, only targeting hydrogen works well because much of our body is made of water. Some biological samples such as bone, however, are more difficult to image because they don't have as much water to target.

To create images, MRI machines send out magnetic pulses to protons found inside hydrogen atoms, causing them to cycle between aligning and reverting back to their original states. The protons emit radio waves, sending a signal back to the machine that can be converted into an image.

For this new technique, the team drew inspiration from quantum computing research to target the nuclei of phosphorous atoms instead. Phosphorous atoms make up a significant amount of bone tissue, allowing scientists to produce more detailed images of bones.

As of now, the MRI technique can't be done on live samples because it generates too much heat. Nonetheless, the researchers hope that it can be applied to a wide variety of applications into imaging biological samples and opaque solids.

The authors noted that older research looking into creating a quantum computer with phosphorous-doped silicon inspired this seemingly unrelated new research.

"This is an out of left field breakthrough," Sean Barrett, a physicist based at Yale University and coauthor of this new research told APS' journal Physics in an email.

That's part of what makes science so rewarding: Even if you think you know what you're seeking, you never know where the data might take you.


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