Having an ultrasound is now part and parcel of the process in modern day pregnancy in the West. Once restricted to 2D scans and singular planes of vision, now 4D versions are available for expectant mothers.
Also known as sonograms, expectant parents can expect the first glimpse of their unborn child through ultrasound scanning. However, in order to perform the ultrasound, extensive training is required -- and competent sonographers are not always available in particular, remote regions.
Not only can ultrasounds be used in pregnancy monitoring, but it can also track the development of medical conditions, including tumor growth or arterial blockages. If trained professionals are unavailable, this could be detrimental to the health of patients in locations there is a shortage of skilled workers.
However, new research taking place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims to simplify the use of ultrasound equipment, so even untrained members of staff would be able to perform the basic applications of sonography.
Recently presented at the International Symposium on Biomedical Imaging in Barcelona, Spain, a team at MIT have worked on methods to improve the current systems and devices used in sonography. Led by Brian W. Anthony, co-director of MIT's Medical Electronic Device Realization Center (MEDRC), the research had two main functions.
Firstly, to improve the consistency of images produced by ultrasound scanning. The sonographer's varying levels of force, breathing patterns and minute body motions can all affect the quality of produced images in current sonography.
Secondly, the team devised a way to pinpoint and map out the exact locations a reading was taken, so if a tumor or clot was being monitored, for example, its progression could be tracked far more thoroughly and accurately.
By combining the two elements to create a more sophisticated sonography system, Anthony hopes that further than monitoring pregnancy, more advanced and concise images can be produced to monitor illnesses -- without the need for extensively trained staff.
The devices are currently undergoing three clinical trials, including one that focuses on monitoring the patients who are suffering with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). In that particular trial, the refined ultrasound devices are being used to monitor changes in muscle degradation.
A set of sensors on the tip of the ultrasound probe and servomotors react instantly to any change in force -- therefore making the new devices far more sensitive to alterations than traditional equipment. As force increases, the improved analysis capacities makes it possible to collate diagnostic data including the level of skin elasticity, muscle, and tissue changes.
Another feature of the updated equipment is a tiny camera and lens that can zoom in on skin patterns as distinctively as recording a fingerprint. Anthony likened this process to an "on-the-patient GPS system". It is almost impossible to manually hone in on the same patch of skin twice, however, with this advanced diagnostic system, sonographers would be able to do so -- as it is capable of determining changing tissues rapidly and accurately.
Craig Steiner, an anesthesiologist at Chester County Hospital in Pennsylvania, said:
"I'm excited about the prospects of these improved systems. The reproducibility of the scan with consistent pressure and picture quality would help with remote readings of locally done scans. This could be relevant for teleradiology, which is an area ripe for expansion.
The field of ultrasound is still developing. Ultrasound will partially replace CT scans, reduce radiation exposure to patients and make diagnosing easier when away from the high-cost hospitals. It can help our world provide care at a more reasonable cost with a new paradigm of care."
Image credit: Hamed Saber