Jens Frahm presented with 2013 Stifterverband Award

Göttingen physicist is honoured for his refinement of magnetic resonance imaging

June 07, 2013

Jens Frahm, Head of Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, is the recipient of this year’s science award of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (Donors’ Association for the Promotion of the Sciences and the Humanities). The Stifterverband and the Max Planck Society are jointly honouring the physicist for his pioneering refinements in the field of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). His new FLASH technology has made MRI one of the most successful imaging methods: it is now used routinely in hospitals around the world. The prize is endowed with 50,000 euros and will be presented to the winner on 5 June 2013 by the President of the Stifterverband, Arend Oetker, and Max Planck President, Peter Gruss, during the Annual Meeting of the Max Planck Society in Potsdam.

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Jens Frahm

Has one of the accident victim’s internal organs been damaged? Why is an athlete having problems with their knee joint? Could there have been a pathological change in the patient’s nervous tissue? Doctors across the globe can now clarify these and other issues with the aid of magnetic resonance tomography. Unlike X-rays, this method is completely harmless to the patient. Yet up until the mid-1980s MRI was much too slow for medical applications: it took several minutes to record a single image of a layer. Three-dimensional representations of the body were completely out of the question. They only became possible when Jens Frahm developed the fast imaging technique known as FLASH (Fast Low Angle Shot). The method accelerated MRI images more than a hundredfold.

The MRI technique makes use of the hydrogen nuclei in the human body. Their nuclear spin causes them to behave like tiny magnets. The MRI scanner generates a strong magnetic field which aligns the hydrogen nuclei when a patient is being scanned. The scanner now also emits a short radio-frequency pulse in the VHF range which deflects the nuclei from their aligned orientation. When the nuclear spins return to their original alignment, radio waves are emitted from the body and can be recorded by sensitive receiver coils. A computer then puts together an image from measurements which are repeated many times over with different spatial coding. Before Frahm hit on the idea of FLASH, there had to be long pauses between the individual measurements. He employed a physical trick to get round these enforced pauses, drastically shortening the time it takes to record an image. In 2010 Frahm and his fellow scientists achieved a further great breakthrough: FLASH 2. The Göttingen researchers use a different data recording method which requires far fewer individual measurements. This is made possible by a new mathematical method of image reconstruction which Frahm’s team developed.

FLASH 2 allows the MRI images to be recorded much faster than even before, one image taking only one-thirtieth of a second. For the first time the new technique makes it possible to record real-time films with 30 images per second of the human heart beat, blood flow, or speaking and swallowing processes. Although the computers of the MRI machines in hospitals are currently not fast enough to compute the images at the same time as they are recording them, most processes can already be monitored live in Göttingen. The researchers are collaborating with doctors so that real-time MRI will progress to the clinical trial stage very quickly and gradually be put into use with patients. This means minimally invasive surgical procedures under direct MRI control will soon be within our grasp.

Jens Frahm (born 1951) studied physics at the Georg-August University of Göttingen and obtained his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1977 after studying under Hans Strehlow at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. He then worked as a research assistant at the institute, heading an independent research group from 1982 to 1992. Since 1993 Frahm has been Head of the non-profit Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH located at the Max Planck Institute. In 1997 he was appointed adjunct professor in the chemistry faculty of Göttingen University. Jens Frahm is an External Scientific Member at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation and a member of the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen. He has been awarded numerous prizes for his research work, including the Gold Medal Award of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine (1991), the Karl Heinz Beckurts Prize (1993) and the research prize of the Sobeck Foundation (2005).

The science prize is awarded every two years by the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft in conjunction with the Max Planck Society. Since 1998 it has been awarded to projects which combine basic research and application-oriented research in an innovative way. The prize is endowed with 50,000 euros.

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