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Divine Discoveries

Updated: Mar 8

A glimpse into the stellar research conducted at the University of Aberdeen

By Khushvita Singh



The University of Aberdeen's MRI scanner has undergone a £1.2m upgrade with the addition of a new software offering multiple language options. Patients having MRI scans in Aberdeen can now hear the instructions in the North-East Scotland dialect of Doric.

Some examples of new Doric instructions include:

"/The neist scan'll tak five minties/": The next scan will take five minutes.
"/Hud yer breath/": Hold your breath.
"/In a’tween the neist puckle o' scans the table will move aboot/": In between the next few scans, the table will move about.

The new upgrade, in the biomedical imaging centre in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, is aimed at clearer imaging, more accurate diagnosis and a 30% faster operating speed, as well as the language extension. French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin are among the languages available.

Dr Gordon Waiter, a senior lecturer and brain imaging expert at the University of Aberdeen, hopes the language options might make some patients feel more relaxed in an otherwise intimidating situation. Moreover, Dr Thomas McKean has explored the impact of dementia on language. "As dementia takes hold, they begin to lose that second language and go more and more into their native tongue, which is often Doric," Dr McKean said. "And so, if that language is spoken by the carers, a number of people I interviewed have experienced that enables a much deeper connection and a more immediate connection."

The phrases were recorded by Simon Gall, public engagement officer with the university's Elphinstone Institute. He said, "My grandmother, a Doric speaker who has dementia, struggles now with communication in English, but when carers and medical professionals use Scots, she is much more responsive. It's great that Dr Waiter decided to make use of the facility to allow us to record instructions in Doric, and if my voice can put even one person at ease, I am delighted."

The fresh upgrade to the MRI is a fantastic addition to the list of triumphs at the University of Aberdeen. University of Aberdeen researchers were at the forefront of originally developing the ground-breaking technology more than 40 years ago that would go on to save lives across the world. The pioneering medical physicist, Professor John Mallard, whose team led the world with their breakthroughs in medical imaging, passed away at the age of 94 last year on the 25th of February. Professor John Mallard played a crucial role in the development of two of the world's most important medical technologies – Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Nuclear Medicine Imaging which includes Positron Emission Tomography (PET). Under his leadership, the University of Aberdeen team built the first whole-body MRI scanner, which Aberdeen clinicians were then able to use to carry out the world's first body scan of a patient from Fraserburgh. MRI is now used all over the world today in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, dementia, and a wide range of other conditions and injuries.

Professor John Mallard said in 2018, "The driving force for us was the fact that we had X-rays that were telling us everything about the bones. But we had absolutely nothing that was telling us about the soft wet tissues within the body. And that's what MRI did. What I remember most about that time was that it was excellent for picking up multiple sclerosis (MS). I had a cousin who died of MS so I was particularly pleased that we'd found something that if he'd still been alive, it could have helped him."

The technology behind MRI was developed in the 1970s by the late Sir Peter Mansfield and his team at the University of Nottingham. Sir Peter shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2003 with the inventor of the technique, US chemist Professor Paul Lauterbur, but it was the team in Aberdeen that was responsible for developing the world's first full-body MRI scanner. It obtained the first clinically useful image of a patient's internal tissues. Professor Mallard and his team are also credited with technological advances that led to the widespread introduction of MRI across the world. Alison Murray, professor of radiology at the University of Aberdeen, says the significance of the development could not be underestimated. "I think it was revolutionary," she said. "MRI is probably the biggest game changer in modern medicine because we can do so much imaging. I can honestly say they save lives.”

Professor Mallard – who retired from the University in 1992 – was awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List the same year and was awarded the Freedom of the City of Aberdeen in 2004 for his pioneering work in medical imaging. He also received honours including the Landau Memorial Plaque of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine; the Academic Enterprise Competition Prize of the British Technology Group; the Royal Society Wellcome Prize and Gold Medal; the George Van Hevesey Memorial Lecture Medal; The Royal Society Mullard Award and the Royal Medal of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Emeritus Professor Peter Sharp, who worked for Professor Mallard and then became his successor, describes his evermore legacy as, “John Mallard was one of those scientists blessed with a vision, a vision of what physics could contribute to healthcare. Many millions of patients worldwide have good reason to be grateful to him.” Continuing the legacy of the invention of the MRI scanner, the world’s first fully operational and functioning prototype of a Field-Cycling Imaging (FCI) scanner has been developed by the medical physicist, Professor David Lurie, at the University of Aberdeen. It has already been successfully used to scan patients and healthy volunteers.

Research group leader, Professor David Lurie, began his career as a summer student in Mallard’s department. He said, “Because FFC scanners can switch their magnetic field, it is almost like having 100 different MRI scanners in one. This gives an extra dimension to the data collected from each patient, greatly expanding the diagnostic potential.” The University of Aberdeen's FCI scanner and suite has received a generous grant from the Wolfson Foundation. The grant of up to £723,000, generated by the University of Aberdeen Development Trust, will support the creation of a new patient-focussed version of the Field-Cycling (formerly Fast Field-Cycling MRI) scanner in a newly refurbished imaging suite within Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. The ground-breaking invention is scheduled to be completed in 2023.

Alongside revolutionising medical imaging, a new course to help health and social care workers understand the many impacts of female genital mutilation, /Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Health, Law, and Socio-Cultural Sensitivity/ has been launched by FutureLearn in collaboration with the University of Aberdeen. The course was developed following a University of Aberdeen survey of UK medical schools that suggested graduating medical students felt under-prepared to deal with FGM in a professional capacity. Female genital mutilation (FGM) was made illegal in the UK in 1985, but it is thought that more than 100,000 live with the effects in the country today. The new FutureLearn course launched on the 7th of February, the day after international day of zero tolerance for female genital mutilation. The course aims to fill in a gap identified in training for many health and social care professionals in the UK and beyond.

Dr Heather Morgan, who led a series of teaching and research activities that contributed to the development of the course, said, “FGM is a much wider problem and more complex than medical examination, and so we’ve developed a course with a range of professionals in mind, although it’s open to all.”

It is absolutely thrilling to see all the advancements flourishing at the University of Aberdeen. Professor Mallard’s legacy harbours in the steps we take innovating and every challenge we seek to resolve. What an inspiring start to the new year, and a great way to unravel the buried riches behind ordinary visages.


Photo credits: JarmolUK via Pixabay