MR contrast agents: physical and pharmacologic basics

J Magn Reson Imaging. 2007 May;25(5):884-99. doi: 10.1002/jmri.20955.


Since approval of the first magnetic resonance (MR) contrast agent was granted in 1988, there has been remarkable growth in the utilization of intravenous gadolinium (Gd)-based agents. Currently it is estimated that nearly half of all MR studies performed are contrast-enhanced. Despite containing a toxic heavy metal, these agents have proven to be not only an effective diagnostic adjunct to non-enhanced MRI, but also remarkably well tolerated and safe. As a result, conventional wisdom has been that MR contrast media are "biologically inert," a notion that is clearly false. Ultimately, it is the radiologist's responsibility to understand the potential adverse effects of Gd-based agents and the special situations in which they are likely to occur; however, the basic pharmacology of contrast agents is generally not included in medical school curricula or formally taught in residency. The purpose of this review is to discuss the mechanism of action of MR contrast agents and relevant aspects of their clinical pharmacology, including effects on the cardiovascular and renal systems, potential laboratory errors, and special situations involving women and children. We also briefly discuss the issue of nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding
  • Cardiovascular System / drug effects
  • Contrast Media / adverse effects
  • Contrast Media / chemistry
  • Contrast Media / pharmacology*
  • Extravasation of Diagnostic and Therapeutic Materials
  • Female
  • Fibrosis
  • Gadolinium / adverse effects
  • Gadolinium / chemistry
  • Gadolinium / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Hypocalcemia / chemically induced
  • Kidney / drug effects
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Pediatrics
  • Practice Guidelines as Topic
  • Pregnancy
  • Skin Diseases / chemically induced


  • Contrast Media
  • Gadolinium