Basic spin physics

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Magnetic resonance imaging is fundamentally a measurement of the magnetism inherent in some nuclear isotopes; of these the proton, or hydrogen atom, is of particular interest for clinical applications. The magnetism in each nucleus is often referred to as spin. A strong, static magnetic field B0 is used to align spins, forming a magnetic density within the patient. A second, rotating magnetic field B1 (RF pulse) is applied for a short duration, which rotates the spins away from B0 in a process called excitation. After the spins are rotated away from B0, the RF pulse is turned off, and the spins precess about B0. As long as the spins are all pointing in the same direction at any one time (have phase coherence), they act in concert to create rapidly oscillating magnetic fields. These fields in turn create a current in an appropriately placed receiver coil, in a manner similar to that of an electrical generator. The precessing magnetization decays rapidly in a duration roughly given by the T2 time constant. At the same time, but at a slower rate, magnetization forms again along the direction of B0; the duration of this process is roughly expressed by the T1 time constant. The precessional frequency of each spin is proportional to the magnetic field experienced at the nucleus. Small variations in this magnetic field can have dramatic effects on the MR image, caused in part by loss of phase coherence. These magnetic field variations can arise because of magnet design, the magnetic properties (susceptibility) of tissues and other materials, and the nuclear environment unique to various sites within any given molecule. The loss of phase coherence can be effectively eliminated by the use of RF refocusing pulses. Conventional MR imaging experiments can be characterized as either gradient echo or spin echo, the latter indicating the use of a RF refocusing pulse, and by the parameters TR, TE, and flip angle α. Tissues, in turn, are characterized by their individual spin density, M0, and by the T1, T2, and T2* time constants. Knowledge of these parameters allows one to calculate the resulting signal from a given tissue for a given MR imaging experiment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)607-627
Number of pages21
JournalMagnetic resonance imaging clinics of North America
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 17 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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