Potential advances in MRI technology on the nanoscale as well as in the field of quantum computing are closer to being realized, according to a recent UCSB study.

UCSB assistant physics professor Ania Jayich co-authored a study unveiling the recent progress made in MRI science.

Currently, MRI systems for medical imaging use microwaves and large magnetic fields to measure how nuclear spins behave based on their location in the patient’s body. This information is then used to reconstruct an image of the internal structure of the patient’s tissue and bone. MRI can address trillions of nuclei simultaneously, making it possible to see a large area and reconstruct its image on computers.

According to Shimon Kolkowitz, a collaborator in the study, one drawback of MRI technology is that it is currently unable to target a single nucleus, such as those inside cells or DNA.

“The ‘nanoscale’ MRI we do is with a single electronic spin,” Kolkowitz said. “[Nanoscale MRI] actually shows us single nearly-nuclear spins.”

In order to detect the activity of a single nucleus, the researchers used the basic tools of MRI to study how a single magnetic atom buried inside a diamond crystal can be monitored to detect the motion of a magnetic mechanical resonator vibrating nearby, with the potential for new nanoscale-sensing capabilities.

A mechanical resonator can be used to sense slight changes in gravity from a nearby mass or to detect tiny persistent electrical currents. It is used to detect small magnetic fields, and may be applied to reading the domains of a hard drive inside a computer.

Research collaborator and Yale professor Jack Harris added that the researchers detected changes in the magnetic field of the resonator by monitoring the magnetic atom located inside a diamond.

“The real magic is that you can (a) measure the light reflected by a single impurity atom inside a diamond and (b) that this impurity atom is very sensitive to magnetic fields,” Harris said.

The impurity in the atom is known as a “nitrogen-vacancy center,” where the vacancy center is a point-defect in the diamond lattice structure in which a nitrogen atom is substituted for a carbon atom, resulting in a lattice vacancy.

Additionally, the study has the potential to aid in the development of quantum computers.

According to Kolkowitz, potential developments in quantum computing as a result of the study could help solve certain problems much faster as compared to current computers.

“[Quantum computers] could determine the prime factors of large numbers, something ‘classical’ computers are notoriously bad at,” Kolkowitz said.

Although the research has the potential to affect both MRI technology as well as the quantum computing field, what exactly the team’s findings will lead to — including constructing a quantum computer — is yet to be determined.

“[A quantum computer] is still a long way away,” said Kolkowitz.