If you or a loved one has ever had a stroke, appendicitis, or cancer, you already know how x-ray examinations save lives.

Before radiology, the only way to see inside the body was through surgery, which always carries risks such as infection.

In 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered X-rays, producing a tool that let physicians “see” the human skeleton without a single incision. Computed tomography scans take multiple X-rays and combine them to form a composite image, providing a more detailed internal view of organs, tissues, and bones. Positron-emission tomography (PET) scans identify changes at the cellular level. After a patient ingests a radioactive tracer, the PET scan tracks it as it moves through the body.  All of these require stringent exercise of radiation-reducing protocols.

Some imaging techniques don’t require any radiation at all. Ultrasounds use high-frequency sound waves to produce images of organs within the cavities of the body, to monitor pregnancy, or detect cysts, tumors, or gallstones.

What’s coming tomorrow in imaging technology will give physicians the power to see the past, present, and future of a patient’s health.

Imaging improvement is directly related to improved computer processing. A team of UC Berkeley physicists and engineers recently won $13.43 million from the National Institutes of Health to develop the next generation of fMRI, dubbed the NexGen 7T, by 2019.

The strength of an MRI machine’s magnetic field is measured in Teslas (T).  When the magnetic field of our body interacts with the magnetic field of the MRI, our tissue gives off a signal. The higher the power of the external magnet, the higher the intensity of that signal, and in turn, the higher the resolution of the images the MRI produces. Today, the world’s strongest MRI machines, used mostly for research, are somewhere between 7T and 10T. Those routinely used for patient care are much less powerful, at about 1.5T or 3T. 3T can detect very small lesions in the brains of patients with multiple sclerosis, for example, which a less powerful machine could miss. 7T will open up a whole new world.

This new research calls for a new way of thinking about imaging. What if MRIs allowed us to go deeper? What would we learn about the cellular progression of cancer, or neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, if we could observe the loss of the protective myelin sheath in real-time? (MRI) guidance could be used to deliver personalized gene therapy directly to affected brain cells.

It is predicted that we will be able to see the structures of the brain in breathtaking clarity, revealing new questions and answers about autism, anxiety, schizophrenia, and other illnesses and conditions that greatly affect the quality of life and productivity. We may even discover the true source of consciousness.

Imaging since its inception has yielded radically new insights with each innovation. The future of radiology promises to continue that evolution