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MRI and Molecular Breast Imaging

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A Center of Excellence

UC San Diego Health is recognized as a Breast Imaging Center of Excellence by the American College of Radiology (ACR), a designation earned by fewer than 6 percent of all breast imaging centers in California. 

Although mammograms are the most effective screening technique for most women 40 and older, women at higher risk of breast cancer may benefit by having both a mammogram and a breast MRI. Studies suggest that the combination of the two increases the likelihood that breast cancer will be detected early, when it is most treatable. Breast MRI is also used to evaluate patients with a new diagnosis of breast cancer prior to surgery. 

MRI machines use a strong (and painless) magnetic field to image the body. If you are scheduled for a breast MRI exam, you will be provided specific instructions and information about what to expect.

During the MRI Procedure

  • You will lie face down on a special table, which has an area for your breasts
  • You will be asked to remain still for approximately 30-45 minutes while the images are acquired
  • All breast MRI exams require the infusion of contrast material, therefore, you will need an IV placed on the day of your study

If a suspicious finding is identified on the MRI study, you and your referring doctor will be informed. Many times an ultrasound is performed to determine the best method for biopsy.

An Alternative to MRI: Molecular Breast Imaging

MRI may not be an option or a preferred imaging method:

  • If you have any metal within your body, such as from a cochlear implant or clip in the brain
  • If you have claustrophobia
  • If you have severe allergies to medications or contrast agents
  • If you have poor kidney function
Through our nuclear medicine department, UC San Diego Health offers molecular breast imaging (MBI), also known as breast-specific gamma imaging (BSGI), as an alternative to MRI. As with MRI, molecular breast imaging can be useful in detecting cancers that are difficult to detect using mammography alone. 

During the MBI Procedure

  • You will receive an injection with a low dose of a radiotracer, which will accumulate in malignant tissue.
  • After several minutes, you will go to the MBI equipment, which looks similar to a mammogram machine.
  • A technologist will take pictures of your breast with a special gamma camera using standard mammogram positions. Each image takes approximately 10 minutes. The entire procedure will last about 46 to 60 minutes.

Appointments & Referrals


Locations for Breast MRI

La Jolla


Location for Molecular Breast Imaging