New mobile low-field MRI scanner inches closer to increasing imaging access in rural communities

A new study published in Scientific Reports details the creation of a modified cargo van that offers diagnostic quality mobile MRI exams in historically low access areas.  Experts used phantom scans and in vivo T2-weighted neuroimaging data to compare the mobile system to similar static systems in a laboratory setting and found no significant differences in distortion, signal-to-noise ratio or tissue segmentation outcomes.

Though some forms of mobile MRI have been operating for many years, these systems are still typically quite large (necessitating transportation via 18-wheeler), require the availability of high weight-capacity roadways, level ground and specially installed 480 V 3-phase electrical supplies.  Their use, though beneficial, is limited to areas near hospitals, outpatient clinics and other similar locations, which leaves patients in rural areas subject to traveling to obtain their imaging exams.  “Within the context of neuroimaging research, the increasing infrastructural needs of MRI contrasts [contrast] with the broader trends in public health research towards lower cost and accessible data collection using wearable and non-invasive technologies,” corresponding author Sean C. L. Deoni, with the Department of Diagnostic Radiology at Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and co-authors explained.  “The centralization of high-end imaging systems to major cities and urban settings means that participating individuals and families are often skewed towards higher education and socioeconomic demographics, and lack inclusion of rural participants and/or those with mobility and transportation challenges, or families with school, daycare, work or other time commitments that preclude attendance at lengthy study visits.”

Smaller, lighter, low magnetic field strength MRI systems offer a solution to many access disparities in health imaging.  This is what led experts to develop “Scan-a-van,” a portable MRI system that is transported via cargo van.  Scan-a-van is a removable mobile MRI system (Hyperfine Swoop 64 mT) that delivers point-of-care neuroimaging to patients who face access barriers.  By using a docking scanner configuration, the unit can complete scans safely at patients’ homes.  Experts used imaging (brain MRIs) obtained both in the van and in lab settings on the same individuals to grade the image quality and found the exams to be comparable.

Images can be obtained quickly and easily, with a time from arrival to scanning of only five minutes, the experts noted.  Additionally, the van is small enough to navigate narrower, rural and dirt roads safely.  The entire upfront cost of setting up such a system is estimated by the experts to be around $110,000.  “The ability to bring an MRI scanner to a participant, and the ever-increasing ability to perform remote neurocognitive assessments and biospecimen collections, offer the potential to profoundly change how current neuroimaging and neuroscience research is performed, the scope of questions that can be addressed, and the diversity of study populations that can be recruited.  By accommodating participant schedules and not requiring them to travel lengthy distances to a study center will allow more traditionally underrepresented individuals and groups to be recruited and retained, helping to address known race, ethnicity, geographic and socioeconomic biases in neuroscience research,” the team concluded.

REFERENCE:  Innovate Healthcare Health Imaging Insights in Imaging & Informatics; 11 APR 2022; Hannah Murphy

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