Scientists use quantum physics to enhance medical imaging

Analía Zwick and Gonzalo A. Álvarez, CONICET researchers, propose ‘quantum recipes’ that could be used in nuclear resonators to achieve better resolution. The study was published in Physical Review Applied.

Gonzalo Álvarez and Analia Zwick. Photo: courtesy researchers

Quantum physics analyses the laws that rule the world of molecules, the atom, or even particles smaller than an atom. The operation of many of the commonly used technological developments are based on, or explained, on these scales. One example is the nuclear magnetic resonators that process information at tiny scales and allow ‘seeing’ the atoms that make up a living being, but there is a limit to the resolution they can reach.

Researchers Analía Zwick and Gonzalo Álvarez at the ‘Instituto de Nanociencia y Nanotecnología en el Centro Atómico Bariloche (INN, CONICET- CNEA)’ developed a measurement method based on quantum physics that could take better advantage of the information provided by the atoms and thus obtain higher resolution in the use of these medical diagnostic equipment. This means that some diseases can be detected non-invasively, without resorting to a biopsy, for example, to observe some tissue in an electron microscope.

This study, which was published in Physical Review Applied, was developed together with colleagues from Israel and Germany. The authors describe it colloquially as ‘recipes’ that can be applied to current resonators. In the publication they specify the maximum precision that can be achieved, limited by quantum laws and the particularities of each equipment.

Zwick explains that the way in which the information is processed at the quantum level can be compared to the operation of a computer, in which all the information is reduced to ones and zeros that the device encodes in its electronic circuit. “In the quantum system a similar analogy can be made, in which atoms have properties that can be associated with these ones and zeros, but in the quantum world there are other possibilities that enrich the information processing work at these scales.”

“The objective of this development is to detect the movement of the atoms of water molecules, which perceive what is happening around them. With the data of what is happening to those atoms, it is possible to infer how the environment is. That is that the atom could be used as a sensor on a very small scale,” says the researcher.

Although our atoms can ‘spy’ on all our body, “it is hard to obtain that information to process it. With this study we aim at explaining from physics which is the information the atom contains, how and how much we can obtain,” adds the scientist.

This increased resolution can contribute to the detection of diseases such as cancer, or neurodegenerative disorders, early using technology that already exists and is used daily in medical practice. This technique can “become an example of future technologies based on quantum information that is revolutionizing many areas of technology, providing social benefits to many areas, including precision medicine,” the scientists explain.

“In general, diseases such as cancer, the alteration begin at very small scales, (molecular or cellular), and today we cannot observe them without doing a biopsy, or with some invasive technique. Our idea is to try to obtain that information without modifying the body,” Zwich concludes.

By María Bocconi

References: A. Zwick et al.: Precision Limits of Tissue Microstructure Characterization by Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Phys. Rev. Applied 14, 024088 (2020); DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevApplied.14.024088


About the study:

Analia Zwick. Associate researcher.  INN, CAB.

Dieter Suter.  Technische Universität Dortmund, Germany.

Gershon Kurizki. Weizmann Institute of Science. Israel.

Gonzalo A. Álvarez. Independent researcher. INN, CAB and Instituto Balseiro.