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Magnetic-resonance imaging - no, it's not an election-year political gimmick to attract votes but rather the latest development in diagnostic imaging now available at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center.

Magnetic resonance - commonly referred to by its "MR" or "MRI" acronym - is providing images of bones, tissues, muscles, organs and other anatomical elements that often boast better clarity, detail and contrast that the common images provided through CAT scans or X-rays. And images can be taken from any direction and any plane, not limited to the axil-plane images taken by a CAT scan in sliced-loaf-of-bread fashion.Better still is the fact that there are no known harmful side effects to the MR process - no radiation, no sound waves, no injections, no prerequisite medications. The process involves the use of a powerful magnetic system and radio waves, which cause energized hydrogen atoms to give off faint signals. Signals are received, processed and transformed into images, which can appear either on a monitoring screen, magnetic tape or film sheets.

Utah Valley Regional Medical Center's new magnetic-resonance equipment, valued at $2.4 million, is the Signa TM superconducting magnetic resonance system from GE Medical Systems.

While the system has been in use only since early July, its presence - and price tag - had been anticipated for quite some time. Besides financial planning, special construction was necessary to house the massive magnetic unit and its support apparatus of computers and micro-processors in the medical center's Medical Office Building, which was completed several years ago.

The room features special double-plated steel-lined walls, with some 80 tons of steel helping to confine the magnetic force. Said Dr. E. Bruce McIff of the medical center's radiology department, "The room looked like it was built for a nuclear war."

Not a nuclear war, but a several-ton magnet with a magnetic field 25,000 times the strength of the earth's magnetic field.

The system is not the first in the state. Other medical centers such as LDS Hospital and the University of Utah have similar equipment. "We're not the first kid on the block," McIff said, "but we're the newest."

Weighing nearly eight tons, the hollow-centered magnetic unit contains the huge, powerful magnet, which is encased in liquid helium and liquid nitrogen as environment enhancers. Strapped down to decrease even the slightest movement during the examination, the patient is slowly transported into the unit by a motorized table.

The average MR examination takes roughly half an hour and costs $600 to $1,100 - too expensive now for the random-testing tool that it could become.

The myriad of planes and directions available for taking images from a patient are endless. Images are now taken in "slices" as little as three millimeters apart. The distance will soon be reduced to a single millimeter.

With such a tight cross-sectioning of imagery, Dr. Wendell A. Gibby said MR can offer information that might be overlooked in other situations. "We sometimes see things that the pathologists don't see because we cut it thinner."

The process and its detailed, contrast-rich images are proving to be most useful in exams.