Birth in an MRI

Babies are born in all kinds of settings, but a 24-year-old woman in Berlin chose to have her third child in December of 2010 inside a magnetic resonance imaging device at the Charite University Hospital in the German capital.

Researchers at the hospital last month released a brief segment of the seven sequences of real-time images they made of the birth inside a specially constructed open MRI, shown in the photo below. The video accompanied the publication of their article about the event in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

A midwife, an obstetrician, a neonatologist and an anesthetist were in the magnet room while the MRI was on. The hospital's delivery unit was a short distance away on the same floor. Mom and baby left the hospital two days after participating in this historic birth.

The view of the baby's journey into the world from inside the birth canal will provide researchers with valuable insight into the mechanics of this amazing passage, the authors said.

Birth in an MRI

The mother was just shy of 38 weeks gestation, fully dilated and experiencing regular contractions. She received an epidural before entering the MRI, where she remained for less than an hour, according to the article.

One additional "study" was taken of the mother's body after birth, "to evaluate the third stage of labor with regard to placental separation and uterus involution," the authors wrote.

The researchers, all affiliated with Charite, were concerned about subjecting a brand-new baby to the loud noise of the machine without the "maternal soft tissue" padding, so they turned the MRI off just at birth.

Images Christian Bamberg / American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology

The microscope

In time, the microscope made the existence of a whole tiny world irrefutable. This amazing device was invented in the 1590s, probably either by Hans Janssen, working with his son, Zachariah, or by Hans Lippershey, all of whom were eyeglass makers in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

Robert Hooke's microscope

Robert Hooke's microscope

The microscope was possibly a byproduct of the invention of the telescope, and it definitely benefited from the fact that a great many people were wearing eyeglasses by the end of the 16th century.

The compound microscope, multiple lenses in a tube, like the device Robert Hooke used to make his famous study of cells, was invented before the simple, single-lens model like the one Anton van Leeuwenhoek used when he discovered microorganisms.

The Nobel Committee has awarded four prizes for microscopes, the most recent three for Physics:

  • Richard Zsigmondy won in Chemistry in 1925 for his development in 1903 of the ultramicroscope, which allowed him to view objects that were below the wavelength of light.
  • Frits Zernike won in 1953 for his invention in 1932 of the phase-contrast microscope, which makes colorless or transparent objects visible.
  • Ernst Ruska won in 1986 for the electron microscope, a superior design for magnification that he developed in 1938.
  • Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer won in 1986 for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope in 1981.  This amazing instrument makes the atoms in an object visible — in three dimensions!

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Clear as glass

Glass-making is an ancient art, originally developed in the Middle East. Its secrets have been lost, re-discovered at different times and in different processes, and eventually spread around the world. The magnifying properties of glass were obvious and often remarked upon.

Modern lenses evolved from reading stones — rock crystal, for example, that was shaped into magnifiers, the first step toward creating instruments that would make the minute world visible.

Reading stone

Reading stone

The scientist and mathematician Abu Ali Hasan Ibn Al-Haitham, also known as Alhazen, "the father of modern optics," working in 11th-century Spain, described many of the properties of light, including refraction and color, as well as the magnifying properties of  lenses.

Some talented Italian made the first eyeglasses in Europe, for far-sightedness only, sometime in the 13th century. Nicholas Cusanus, a brilliant German cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is credited with making the first eyeglasses for myopia, in 1451.

In 1604, Johannes Kepler, the great German mathematician, astronomer and inventor, published Optics, an astonishing treatise that covered the nature and action of light, as well as the mechanics of sight. Optics became part of the bedrock of physics.

In 1611, Kepler improved on Galileo's telescope by replacing its concave eyepiece with a convex one. (Candidates abound for the honor of inventing the telescope, around 1600.)

Incidentally, Kepler's mother, Katharina, was accused of witchcraft in 1615, when she was about 70. He handled her defense himself, eventually winning her acquittal. Katharina Kepler reportedly had played a part in her son's lifelong love affair with the heavens: When he was six years old, she took him to "a high place" so he could see the spectacle of the Great Comet of 1577 in the night sky.

Image from Zeiss Optical Museum

Making birth possible for millions

For the first time ever, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded one of its coveted medals — and $1-million-plus in prize money — to a scientist who worked in the area of reproduction.

The British biologist Robert G. Edwards won the Nobel Prize in "physiology or medicine" today for pioneering in vitro fertilization with a colleague, Patrick Steptoe, a gynecologist and medical researcher who died in 1988. The pair's efforts led to the birth of the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, on July 25, 1978.

Since then, four million babies have been born with the assistance of IVF, in which sperm and egg are united outside the mother's body and then transferred to the womb.

The Nobel Committee waited more than 30 years to make the award. Edwards, who spent most of his career at Cambridge University, is 85 years old and "not in a position to understand the honor he has received today,” a colleague, Dr. Michael Macnamee, was quoted as saying in a New York Times article by Nicholas Wade.

Edwards and Steptoe unlocked many of the secrets of the human reproductive system on their way to success with IVF. They tried 40 embryo transfers before they achieved a pregnancy, which turned out to be ectopic. The second try led to the birth of a daughter to Leslie and Gilbert Brown of Oldham, in Greater Manchester, England.

Like virtually all medical visionaries, Edwards and Steptoe were subjected to vitriolic attacks. The British medical establishment withheld all manner of support from them, even after Louise Brown's birth.

But the joy of millions of families all over the world who were able to hold their own babies as a result of IVF technology eventually quelled the critics.

Louise Brown, herself the mother of a three-year-old boy, said of the award today: "It's fantastic news; me and Mum are so glad that one of the pioneers of IVF has been given the recognition he deserves. We hold Bob in great affection and are delighted to send our personal congratulations to him and his family at this time."