History of the CT Scan

Doctor with patient using CT scan

Although computerized tomography (CT) – or computerized axial tomography (CAT) – scan is associated with science and technology, many would be surprised to learn that its humble beginnings could possibly be rooted in rock and roll. Specifically, the creation of this incredible technology has been widely attributed to the success of The Beatles in the 60s.

CT scan of the human neck

Above: A modern 3D scan of the human neck.

Rumor has it that Electric and Music Industries (EMI), which owned the Abbey Road Studios that catapulted the band to stardom, used the staggering sales from their albums in the 60s to fund the research that would later produce the “EMI scan” – what is more commonly known as the CT scan today. This means that anyone who danced to Beatles hits like “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “PS I Love You,” “Love Me Do,” and their remake of “Twist and Shout” are inadvertently responsible for this magnificent technology.


Who Invented the CT Scan?

The first commercially available CT scanner was created by British engineer Godfrey Hounsfield of EMI Laboratories in 1972. He co-invented the technology with physicist Dr. Allan Cormack. Both researchers were later on jointly awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. By 1981, Hounsfield was knighted and became Sir Godfrey Hounsfield.

Godfrey Hounsfield with CT scan

Above: Godfrey Hounsfield with the first commercial CT scanner.

However, it was the mathematical theory of Johann Radon way back in 1917, called “Radon transform,” that brought the technology to life. Another mathematical advancement that Hounsfield built on is the “Algebraic Reconstruction Technique,” which was formulated by Polish mathematician Stefan Kaczmarz in 1937. Both theories were adopted by Hounsfield to create one of the greatest advancements in medical history.

The first prototype CT scanner

Above: The first prototype of a CT scanner.

Interestingly, Hounsfield had no qualifications as he quit school at the tender age of 16. Hence, all the degrees bestowed upon him were honorary. He also never got married and claimed to have not established any “permanent residence” until he reached 60 years old. Although he later invented the CT scan, Hounsfield’s initial work with EMI focused on radar and guided weaponry. Despite his brilliance, Hounsfield’s peers described the Nobel winner as a “crank.” He passed away in 2004 at the age of 84.

So, what was the catalyst for his work with the CT scan?

According to Hounsfield, the idea to invent such technology came to him while on vacation. At the time, all he wanted was to reconstruct a 3D picture of a box. He intended to achieve this by re-imagining the object as a series of slices. His inspired thought led to further EMI research and funding, and the first commercially viable CT scan (previously called an EMI brain scanner) was set up at Atkinson’s Morley Hospital in 1971.

Before this happened, though, Hounsfield needed another boost to transition the brain scanner to mainstream medicine. This was where a consultant radiologist from the hospital, named James Ambrose, came in and helped the British engineer to create a prototype that they used to study preserved organs of humans and animals.

The first ever human patient to benefit from the brain scanner was a woman believed to be suffering from a brain tumor. The first doctor to utilize the machine on October 1, 1971, was James Ambrose. The entire process took days to complete as the scanner required many hours to obtain the raw data for a single scan, or “slice.” Afterward, a few more days were needed to reconstruct an image from the acquired data.


When Did CT Scans Become Widely Used?

Modern CT scanner

Above: A modern-day CT scanner.

The success of the prototype brain scanner at Atkinson Morley Hospital was publicized in 1972. By the year 1973, the United States had installed the first CT scanners of their own. The popularity of this method reached such staggering heights that by 1980, 3 million CT scan examinations had been recorded.


The Future of the CT Scan

The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been touted as a massive boon for radiologists and pathologists across the globe, and the medical imaging industry is identified as one of the areas that would benefit from it the most.

NASA using CT scanner

Above: A future concept of a CT scanner being used on a NASA astronaut.

A prime example of this is the latest study which revealed that an AI platform can be capable of detecting acute neurologic occurrences in CT scan images within 1.2 seconds. The test was done using 37,000 head CT exams, with the results showing that the AI system could diagnose and identify neurological ailments like a stroke quicker than any human radiologist.

This development is critical to the improvement of patient care, particularly in alerting physicians to urgent concerns. Hours could turn into mere seconds as the process is 150 times faster – an advancement that would undoubtedly unburden the hospital staff. While the research has yet to be concluded, and the AI platform is still pending real-life tests, this study is a prime example of how this technology could work hand in hand with radiologists today.


Final Thoughts

A CT scan offers a plethora of benefits to those with internal injuries or other kinds of trauma. This technology allows doctors to visualize practically all parts of the patient’s body and helps them diagnose diseases accurately. It can identify bone and joint diseases, such as complicated bone fractures and even tumors. For patients with illnesses like cancer, liver masses, and heart disease, a CT scan guides the doctors into tracking the specific parts afflicted by the ailments. Blood clots and infections can also be easily spotted with the help of this technology.

Further, a CT scan is a critical tool in planning a patient’s treatment – be it for surgical, medical, or radiation purpose. Doctors can use the results as tools to determine which medications are working and what other treatments could be utilized. Needless to say, CT scans have come a long way since the day Hounsfield introduced them to the world. This brain scanning technology has evolved into one of the most crucial and valuable tools in modern medicine.