What is Gadolinium?

Gadolinium is a Common MRI Agent But Has Become Controversial

Doctors preparing patient for MRI scan
Gadolinium used during MRI scans.. Morsa Images / Getty Images

Gadolinium is a chemical element which can be compounded and dissolved into a clear fluid that is administered through an intravenous line and used as an agent during a breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).MRIs with gadolinium help doctors locate, evaluate and monitor cancer in the body. The FDA has approved the following gadolinium-based contrast agents:

  • Omniscan
  • OptiMARK
  • Magnevist
  • ProHance
  • MultiHance

    How Does Gadolinium Work?

    As gadolinium flows through your bloodstream and enters the magnetic field, its temperature increases slightly; you won’t feel this effect because the amount of the element is so small. The signals created by the passing gadolinium are picked up by special radio equipment inside the MRI machine. Those signals are sent to a computer, which creates images of the breast tissue. The presence of the gadolinium in the veins highlights the circulation inside your breast and helps create a high-contrast image. Gadolinium will cool off as it exits the magnetic field and will be cleared from your system by your kidneys.

    What Are The Risks of Gadolinium?

    MRIs are typically safer than other diagnostic procedures. They do not use ionizing radiation that has been linked to cancer. However, recent research has suggested that there are some risks involved with gadolinium that were not previously known.


    In 2014, a series of three studies were completed that identified a potential link between gadolinium and brain abnormalities. While gadolinium was believed to be completely eliminated from the body after an MRI, the researchers found that the gadolinium may not be eliminated right away and can instead linger in the body, affecting tissue.

    The presence of gadolinium can lead to some disorders like Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While these results were only shown in these preliminary studies, it is a factor to consider when beginning your treatments and should be discussed with your doctor. 

    There is no known risk from exposure to the radio waves used during an MRI session.

    In December 2006, a Public Health Advisory was issued by the FDA about a rare skin disorder which can be caused by gadolinium. In some cases, gadolinium can cause nephrogenic systemic fibrosis or nephrogenic fibrosing dermopathy (NSF/NFD). NSF/NFD may occur two days to 18 months after exposure to gadolinium. It was reported in patients with kidney failure and acidosis.

    These side effects are generally rare and MRIs using gadolinium agents are still frequently used and recommended to determine the presence and growth of cancer. 

    Gadolinium and Breast MRIs

    Breast MRIs use an extremely low dose of gadolinium, so doctors believe there is little risk of overdose or side effects.

    A clear MRI scan, due to the use of gadolinium, is of great benefit for a woman at high risk for breast cancer. It can determine cancer in early stages, allowing for early intervention and more effective treatments. 

    There have been approximately 200 reports of NSF/NFD reported worldwide, in patients who were having a Magnetic Resonance Angiogram (MRA) test. An MRA uses up to three times more gadolinium than a breast MRI.

    Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about diagnostic procedures and treatments. She can help you understand the risks and benefits of each option. 


    U. S. Food and Drug Administration. Public Health Advisory - Gadolinium-containing Contrast Agents for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Omniscan, OptiMARK, Magnevist, ProHance, and MultiHance. Last Updated: December 22, 2006. Public Health Advisory - Gadolinium-containing Contrast Agents for Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
    Imaging Technology News. "Gadolinium May Remain in the Brain After Contrast MRI". 2015. 

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