Ultrasound ‘sticker’ could let pregnant women watch their babies grow — on a smartphone

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Mothers-to-be could soon be watching their babies grow in the womb on a digital device! MIT engineers have developed a stamp-sized sticking plaster that can produce high-resolution images of the heart, lungs, and other organs.

The technology would create a continuous ultrasound image for 48 hours. Along with pregnant women keeping an eye on their fetuses, the “sticker” could also improve monitoring of cancerous tumors. Researchers add the stickers have a host of potential applications, speeding up disease diagnosis and treatment.

“We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cellphone, where AI algorithms would analyze the images on demand,” says study senior author Xuanhe Zhao, a professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT, in a media release.

“We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.”

What can the stickers see?

The MIT team ran a battery of tests with healthy volunteers, who wore the stickers on various parts of their bodies, including the neck, chest, stomach, and arms. They stayed attached to their skin and took detailed snaps of underlying structures for up to two days.

During this time, participants performed a variety of activities in the lab, from sitting and standing, to jogging, biking, and lifting weights. The images revealed the changing diameter of major blood vessels when seated versus standing up.

They also captured details of deeper organs, such as how the heart changes shape as it exerts itself during exercise. Moreover, the researchers were able to watch the stomach distend, then shrink back as volunteers drank and later passed juice out of their system.

While some participants lifted weights, Prof. Zhao and the team could detect bright patterns in underlying muscles, signaling temporary microdamage.

“With imaging, we might be able to capture the moment in a workout before overuse, and stop before muscles become sore,” says study author Dr. Xiaoyu Chen. “We do not know when that moment might be yet, but now we can provide imaging data that experts can interpret.”

What exactly is an ultrasound?

Ultrasound is a safe and non-invasive window into the body’s inner workings, providing clinicians with live images of a patient’s organs. Trained technicians manipulate wands and probes to direct sound waves into the body. They reflect back out to produce high-resolution images.

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