Science & Technology

Watch What Happens Inside the Body When You Talk

Last month, the European Patent Office announced the finalists for the 2018 European Inventor Award. Among the three names was physicist Jens Frahm, who turned MRI from a slow but promising technology into a lightning-fast, mind-bogglingly useful imaging technique. To prove just how impressive Frahm's advances were, the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, Germany, where Frahm is a research director, released some truly astonishing footage of what this tech can do.

It's What's on the Inside That Counts

If the last thing you heard about MRI was that you had to hold your breath and lie deathly still for minutes at a time, think again. Frahm's FLASH2 MRI method is designed specifically to capture movement — and because it images your insides, that means the movements of your organs, joints, muscles, and everything else in your body. To get an idea of what this looks like, check out this video of a man speaking German:

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It might be difficult to even know what you're looking at, so let us explain: that big white marshmallow-looking thing moving all over the place is the tongue. Just to the left are the lips and teeth, above is the nasal cavity. The white flap to the upper right? That's the soft palate, which does the work of closing off the nasal cavity and keeping food from going down your respiratory tract. Bet you never even thought about how much it moves while you talk!

The Institute also released video of a man singing inside the MRI, but we tend to prefer this video produced last year by professional voice coach Tyley Ross:

Finally, if seeing a cross-section of a person speaking changed how you see the human body, this video will totally rock your world. A real-time scan of a person's heart beating as they breathe shows just how far MRI has come since the days of holding your breath in the scanner.

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You can clearly see the beating heart as the chest expands with each inhale and contracts with each exhale. The lungs are black because they're mostly empty space — there isn't much for the scan to pick up on there. Below the heart, there's a thin muscle — the diaphragm — separating the chest cavity from the internal organs. The large gray mass at the top of those organs is the liver; the small circular blob to its lower right is the stomach. (Really puts things in perspective, doesn't it?) The white mass to the right of that is the spleen, an underrated organ that not only filters your blood but also acts as a mini scuba tank. Human bodies are downright amazing.

With Our Powers Aligned ...

All of this is even more incredible when you find out that when the first MRI scan took place in 1977, it took five hours to create one grainy image. MRI works by using a magnetic field to force the spinning hydrogen protons in your body to align like tiny little iron filings, then emitting a pulse of radiofrequency that nudges some of those protons in a different direction. When the radiofrequency pulse turns off, the protons realign and release their stored energy, which can be read by the scanner. Different tissues in your body respond to these signals in a slightly different way, and that's what lets the MRI create a complete image of your insides. In the '70s, one image required a huge number of these measurements, and every measurement required a pause before the next one could take place.

Frahm's genius was in making this process faster. "Our idea in the 1980s was to use only part of the available MRI signal for each measurement. This physical trick allowed us to eliminate the pauses completely and to dramatically shorten the measuring times by a factor of at least a hundred," Frahm explained in a statement. In the mid-1980s, he and his team came up with FLASH MRI, which is used worldwide to this day. Then in 2010, they achieved the breakthrough you see in the videos above, called FLASH2. FLASH2 enables real-time filming of body processes and is showing promise in everything from cardiac diagnostics to surgical procedures. In those two steps, Frahm and his team sped up MRI scanning by a factor of 10,000. No wonder he's nominated for a prestigious award.

Did this article make you realize you need to brush up on your human anatomy? Have fun doing it with this anatomy coloring book by Wynn Kapit and Lawrence M. Elson. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 17, 2018

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