MRI scan of the brain

In your head

Imaging the living brain is a valuable thing to do

We can image, or ‘scan’, the brain to examine its structure and function in living people and other animals. This can be done using various methods, such as computerised tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), alone or in combination.

Researchers use these methods to try to understand how the healthy brain develops, performs its functions and changes as we get older, as well as to study the changes that occur in neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and stroke. In the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, for example, the hippocampus begins to shrink, eventually leading to problems with memory. In stroke, damage to the grey matter and the white matter connecting different parts of the brain often affects a person’s ability to speak and move. Doctors can image the brain to observe these changes to diagnose diseases more accurately. Brain imaging can also be used to monitor the progression of a disease, as well as the effects of therapy.

Lead image:

An MRI scan of a healthy adult brain taken from behind, showing white and grey matter structures.

Dr Flavio Dell'Acqua/Wellcome Images CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Inside the Brain’ in January 2013 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Inside the Brain
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development