Biology in the Laboratory

Seeing Small

What is nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)?

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) is a process in which the nuclei of certain atoms absorb energy from an external magnetic field. Scientists use NMR spectroscopy to identify unknown compounds, check for impurities, and study the shapes of molecules. They use the knowledge that different atoms will absorb electromagnetic energy at slightly different frequencies.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), sometimes called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI), is a noninvasive diagnostic technique. It is useful in detecting small tumors, blocked blood vessels, or damaged vertebral disks. Because it does not involve the use of radiation, it can often be used where X-rays are dangerous. Large magnets beam energy through the body, causing hydrogen atoms in the body to resonate. This produces energy in the form of tiny electrical signals. A computer detects these signals, which vary in different parts of the body and according to whether an organ is healthy or not. The variation enables a picture to be produced on a screen and interpreted by a medical specialist.


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