Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain is a safe and painless procedure that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the brain and the brain stem. An MRI differs from a CAT scan (also called a CT scan or a computed axial tomography scan) because it does not use radiation.
An MRI scanner consists of a large doughnut-shaped magnet that often has a tunnel in the center. Patients are placed on a table that slides into the tunnel. (Some centers have open MRI machines that have larger openings and are helpful for patients with claustrophobia).
During the exam, radio waves manipulate the magnetic position of the atoms of the body, which are picked up by a powerful antenna and sent to a computer. The computer performs millions of calculations, resulting in clear, cross-sectional black and white images of the body. These images can be converted into three-dimensional (3-D) pictures of the scanned area. This helps pinpoint problems in the brain and the brain stem when the scan focuses on those areas. In some cases, MRI can provide clear images of parts of the brain that can’t be seen as well with an X-ray, CAT scan, or ultrasound, making it particularly valuable for diagnosing problems with the pituitary gland and brain stem.
MRI can detect a variety of conditions of the brain such as cysts, tumors, bleeding, swelling, developmental and structural abnormalities, infections, inflammatory conditions, or problems with the blood vessels. It can determine if a shunt is working and detect damage to the brain caused by an injury or a stroke.