MRI drugs leave toxic heavy metal residue in the brain

 October 18, 2015

 While MRIs are thought to be a helpful diagnostic tool for medical providers, there is now evidence these tests could actually cause serious harm. Experts are calling for additional research into possible health risks, including toxic metal residues.

Patients undergoing MRI are typically injected beforehand with a contrast agent, a step undertaken to sharpen the diagnostic images. But patients have reported a loss in cognitive abilities after only a few treatments, a concern experts are tracing to contrast agents containing a toxic metal known as gadolinium.

New scientific studies raise serious brain health concerns

A recent study showed a correlation between use of intravenous gadolinium-based contrast agents and deposits of gadolinium found in neural tissues. Results were published online in Radiology, with lead author Robert McDonald, MD, PhD, Mayo Clinic, noting the fact that some of the administered dose of contrast agent is deposited in neural tissues was surprising.

Patients who have undergone routine MRIs, such as Marcie Jacobs, later report a loss of cognitive abilities. After having memory and other brain function issues following several years of routine MRIs for breast cancer detection, Ms. Jacobs ended up on disability.

Also in the journal Radiology, Dr. Emanuel Kanal, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, along with Michael Tweedle at Ohio State University, wrote that current studies “called into question” the “safety of at least some” of the agents. While the two did not call for an end to the use of these agents, they did call for increased caution in prescribing the drugs.

Are you being offered these MRI drugs?

Nine gadolinium-based contrast agents are sold in the U.S., with an estimated one-third of the 20 million MRIs conducted nationwide each year using one of these agents. However, the two raising the most concern are Omniscan, manufactured by GE Healthcare, and Magnevist, made by Bayer HealthCare.

This isn’t the first time these agents have come into question. Back in 2007, after contrast agents like Omniscan were linked to a crippling, sometimes fatal, condition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required warnings to caution providers that patients with kidney impairment may be at increased risk of known as nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF) because of their inability to excrete the gadolinium found in the contrast agent.

The agency elected not to ban the drugs, despite two FDA medical reviewers calling for such action. Finally, in 2010, the FDA recommended that GE’s drug, as well as two other agents, not be used in patients suffering from impaired kidneys. Included with GE’s drug were Magnevist and Optimark, both sold by Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals.

It’s time to use the ‘precautionary principle’

While the more recent studies cited by Kanal and Tweedle do not specifically describe the clinical effects of residual gadolinium in the brain, the findings should serve as a warning to radiologists.

In answer to the question surrounding its product, GE Healthcare stated its own task force found no evidence of potential injury to the brain. Bayer claims to have reached out to authors of the research. Meanwhile, both companies have confidentially settled hundreds of lawsuits, including those involving deaths.

For example, a 2013 case that went to trial in Cleveland resulted in a $5 million verdict against GE. Sadly, by the time a federal appeals court upheld the verdict a year later, the plaintiff had died after suffering from NSF.

The risk to MRI patients continues…

While healthcare providers now ensure that patients have no kidney issues before getting MRIs, the dangers of gadolinium residues from certain agents continues. Patients have shown signs of residual gadolinium despite having healthy kidney function.

Unfortunately, it remain unclear how gadolinium in the brain impacts patients over time, but clearly the most suspect agents should be avoided. One thing we know: Gadolinium traces are being left behind at much higher levels than previously assumed.