Although ultrahigh-field MRI is in its infancy, the consensus in the clinical-research community is that the technology's inherent benefits - most notably the tremendous increase in signal-to-noise ratio - will yield fundamental insights into the diagnosis and treatment of degenerative neurological diseases, among them Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.

Significantly, scientists are already exploiting ultrahigh-field technology in a range of clinical contexts: to realize a more granular understanding of brain function and cognitive processes; to facilitate quantitative studies of gene expression; and to monitor the development of stem cells and malignant tumours. The equipment makers, for their part, are hoping for a "trickle-down" effect, with ultrahigh-field-gradient and RF innovations in 7.0 T systems (and higher) ultimately feeding into the product development cycles for 3.0 and 1.5 T machines.

Such a broad canvas makes collaboration and division of labour essential. With this in mind, the VISTA research network also includes the University Medical Center Utrecht (currently commissioning another 7.0 T machine from Philips) and the F C Donders Center/University Medical Center St Radboud in Nijmegen (where the team has access to a Siemens 7.0 T machine at the University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany).

For the VISTA partners, the aim is simple: to give the best research talent - from within the Netherlands and without - access to advanced MRI technology that was previously out of reach. The benefits don't end there. VISTA's networked model - with multiple institutes purchasing as a collective rather than in isolation - makes sense on a financial level as well, maximizing economies of scale while minimizing duplication of effort when it comes to the installation, commissioning and maintenance of all that high-end MRI infrastructure.

The big picture

VISTA aside, the emergence of ultrahigh-field MRI in Europe is a prominent theme on medicalphysicsweb just now. Someone who should know is David Rayner, managing director of UK-based MR magnet specialist Magnex Scientific. "Ultrahigh-field MRI systems are expensive, but there is clearly a demand for these cutting-edge instruments, both for clinical research and drug development," he explains in Monster magnets: a growing trend?

Magnex has just installed a 16.4 T small-animal scanner - the world's highest-field-strength MR imager - at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany (having previously supplied a 14.1 T small-bore scanner to the Centre for Biomedical Imaging in Lausanne, Switzerland). The company also supplied a magnet to the Tübingen facility for a 9.4 T Siemens MRI scanner, the highest-field-strength instrument currently available for human clinical research.

However, all of this technological innovation has implications beyond the clinical. That's especially so for pioneers of ultrahigh-field MRI in the 27 member states of the European Union (EU). Here, trouble is brewing in the shape of the guidelines laid down in the EU's Physical Agents (EMF) Directive 2004/40/EC.

The directive, which must be incorporated within the legislation of EU member states by April 2008, is intended to protect the health and safety of workers who come into contact with EMF - among them clinical and research staff required to carry out MRI procedures. Trouble is, those same guidelines could potentially lead to severe restrictions in the use of high-field and ultrahigh-field scanners. (For a detailed discussion of the issues, see Watching the directives: big trouble for MRI on medicalphysicsweb.)

The story of the directive as it pertains to MRI still has a ways to run, more of which in the next Editorial column (to be published mid-September). For now, MRI researchers in the VISTA network and across the EU will be hoping that the policy-makers in Brussels see sense and, at the very least, delay the EMF legislation pending further evaluation.