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  • Finding out information about what is going on inside the body is a critical part of diagnosing disease and injury. One way to find out is to perform exploratory surgery to look directly inside the body. However, today we can obtain much of the same information without surgery by using of a variety of medical imaging techniques that show us pictures of the inside of our bodies. Use our wide range of resources to find out more about some of the medical innovations that have allowed us to see inside out bodies.

    Rights: Dr Richard Watts

    MRI scanner

    Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be used to detect things an x-ray can’t. MRI can look for disease, bleeding, Parkinson’s Disease and head injuries. We can use MRI to image water movement in the brain, and learn more about disorders such as dyslexia or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

    X-ray imaging is the oldest and perhaps the most common medical imaging method. Read about Dr Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery in 1895 and then use the Discovery and development of X-rays activity with your students.

    Different imaging methods are suited to different tasks and are often complementary:

    • X-ray-based techniques such as X-ray film images and computed tomography (CT) scans are based on the difference in the density of tissue and bone.
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows good image contrast between various soft tissues. Dr Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield were the scientists who helped develop MRI, receiving the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2001 for this work.
    Rights: Dr Richard Watts

    Transverse view of the brain

    Transverse view of the brain of a 75 year old male, taken with MRI. MRI scans give very high quality images, with excellent contrast between the different types of tissues, this makes it is one of the best techniques for imaging the brain.

    Did you know that the human body is made up of about 200 different cell types? This means that different cell characteristics are important when considering the type of medical imaging technique to use, find out more in the article Looking inside your body.

    Rights: Dr Richard Watts

    Patient having an MRI scan

    MRI scanners do not use ionising radiation, therefore it doesn't cause any lasting damage to the patient, so a person can have numerous MRI scans.

    Various imaging methods are used to help with cancer diagnosis and treatment. In these activities students can explore cancer screening and diagnosis, the characteristics of normal and cancerous cells and cancer definitions.

    The scientists below are just some who are involved in using medical innovations in New Zealand:

    • Dr Maggie-Lee Huckabee uses the latest technologies such as endoscopy, MRI, EEG and manometers to study swallowing.
    • Find out about pathology with Dr Catherine Koleda.
    • Dr Juergen Meyer likes using science to improve treatment for cancer patients.
    • Dr Richard Watts’ research involves the use of MRI scanners to make images of the brain. Patients undergoing an MRI are often asked to perform a test for memory – students can use the n-back test activity to practise and design these tests.

    Explore what a heart attack is and the particularly serious arrhythmia ventricular fibrillation. Then follow up with the Labelling the heart activity – designed to help your students identify the main parts of a heart and describe the various functions of the different parts. The Label the heart interactive and animated blood flow though the heart video support this activity.

    Question bank

    The See-through body – question bank provides a list of questions about imaging technologies and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.

    Key terms

    For explanations of key concepts, see See-through body – key terms.


    Use this timeline to discover some of the of major developments in medical imaging.

    Citizen science opportunities

    Research in Alzheimer’s disease has identified ‘stalls’ – small blockages in blood vessels in the brain that could be linked to the disease. Citizen science project Stall Catchers is a way you could help researchers by tagging the occurrence of stalls in videos of blood flow through mice brains.

      Published 24 June 2008, Updated 11 October 2016 Referencing Hub articles
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