The RF transmit (Tx) and receive (Rx) duties have been performed by separate coils on most commercial clinical scanners for about a decade. These days it's rare to find a combined Tx/Rx coil in-use for brain imaging, although they do exist. (We used one at Berkeley until 2008, on a Varian 4 T scanner.) The separation of Tx and Rx is generally regarded as a good thing because it means a large, body-sized coil can be used for Tx, thereby providing a relatively homogeneous transmission field over a region such as a human head, whereas a smaller (head-sized) coil can be used for Rx, thereby providing the higher intrinsic SNR that comes from using the smallest possible magnetic field detector. (As a general rule the smaller the coil, the higher its SNR close to the coil, because the sensitivity drops off with the reciprocal of distance.)
Indeed, most modern Rx coils aren't single electronic entities at all, but arrays of smaller coil elements put together in a "phased array." The entire phased array acts as a single coil only when the individual signals from individual channels are combined in post-processing. (Each coil element has its own receiver chain - preamplifier and digitizer - allowing separate treatment of signals until after acquisition is complete.) The details of these phased array coils and the combination of the separate signals aren't important at this point, although in subsequent posts they will become important. All we need to focus on right now is simply the fact that a multitude of individually received signals will be combined to produce the final MR signal. (See Note 1.) So, in this post we will consider the receiver characteristics of having multiple discrete coil elements.
Receive fields for phased array coils
Why is the modern Rx head coil a collection of separate circuits? A head-sized, single-circuit Rx coil would detect noise from the entire head, whereas redesigning the coil into a succession of small elements reduces the noise "field of view" for each element. Then, by combining the elements in an appropriate manner, the signal characteristics can be returned (as if a single circuit coil were being used) but with a reduced total noise level in the final images.
It should be relatively obvious that a small wire loop would detect signal with a localized sensitivity profile. The farther away the coil is positioned from the source of an MR signal - from a brain, say - the lower will be the voltage induced in that coil by the available magnetization. We don't need to know the particular mathematics of the receive profile - it's massively complicated for modern Rx coils in any case - so suffice it to say that there's a reciprocal relationship between the signal-to-noise ratio and the proximity of the coil from the magnetization inducing that signal. Closer is better (in SNR terms).
For brain imaging, then, it follows that signal from frontal lobe will primarily be detected by loops at the top of a head RF coil, whereas signal from occipital lobe will primarily be detected by loops at the bottom of the coil. Midbrain regions are where things get most interesting, from an electrical engineering perspective, because we need all the coil's elements combined to get appreciable sensitivity. Thus, we can state another general property of phased array coils: at the spatial scales defined by brain anatomy, a phased array coil offers a heterogeneous receive profile. How heterogeneous? is the important question.
The figure below, taken from Wiggins et al., demonstrates the SNR that can be expected from a typical brain for three different phased arrays. These sensitivity maps don't depict precisely how the Siemens product 12-channel and 32-channel head coils will perform, but we can use this comparison to give us a good idea of what we should be expecting to see in our EPIs because the general properties are consistent: the larger the phased array (i.e. the higher the number of independent elements) the smaller the individual detecting loops, the more heterogeneous the receive profile:
|(Click to enlarge.)|