Ultrasound: Use and history
What is an Ultrasound and how does it work?
In 1956, obstetrician Ian Donald and engineer Tom Brown developed a prototype in Glasgow for a diagnostic procedure used today by doctors worldwide. This invention was the ultrasound, an imaging technique that uses sound waves.
Nowadays, such machines consist of a computer console, video monitor, and transducer. A transducer is a hand-held device that sends high-frequency sound waves and listens for the returning echoes. This way, a medical examiner can check internal body organs' shape, size, and density.
The technique is also known as sonography. How does it work? High-frequency sound waves are sent into the body. When these waves strike hard and dense tissue, an image is created. This image can be observed on a monitor.
Ultrasound is a valuable tool. It is non-invasive, safe, and radiation-free.
Most parents are familiar with ultrasound images. These are regularly viewed to check the progress of a pregnancy. Author David Nicholls wrote in his novel One Day: “The beauty of the ultrasound scan is something that only parents can appreciate.”
However, ultrasound has many other valuable applications besides its use in obstetrics. For example:
For cardiovascular issues.
To check body parts such as the gallbladder and thyroid gland.
To evaluate blood flow.
To guide needle placement.
Since its invention, ultrasound has been refined and developed. However, in 2013, Glasgow University professor Malcolm Nicolson said that ultrasound “has probably reached more or less the pinnacle of its acuity.” By this, he meant that the uses and applications of ultrasound had been fully explored.
No longer. In a breakthrough achievement, an MIT team has created a wearable ultrasound medical device.
Ultrasound powered by AI
A new era of imaging powered by AI
According to a report in MIT News, the engineers have come up with an adhesive patch that can produce ultrasound images. The device is the size of a stamp. It is meant to be stuck on the skin and provides ultrasound imaging of internal organs for up to 48 hours.
If this catches on, it will do away with bulky ultrasound equipment that is so far available only in hospitals and clinics. Senior team member Xuanhe Zhao said, “We believe this represents a breakthrough in wearable devices and medical imaging.”
The news was first mentioned in Science, a respected publication with articles that are among the most cited worldwide. The report said continuous imaging of the body’s internal organs could provide crucial information and insights.
Such imaging can enable diagnostic and monitoring tools for various diseases. These include heart conditions, pregnancy-related complications, and types of cancer.
According to Zhao, a few patches on different locations of the body would be able to communicate with a mobile phone. AI algorithms would then be able to analyze the images on demand.
Making it stamp-sized
How does that invention work?
In a conventional ultrasound procedure, the technician first applies some gel to an area of skin. Then, the transducer, or hand-held transmitting device, is placed against the gel. Sound waves are sent into the body. These waves echo off internal organs. Finally, the signals are converted into images that can be seen on a monitor.
The stickers are 2 sq cm in size and only 3 mm thick. They can continuously monitor organs for long periods without a technician using a hand-held device. However, they have to be physically connected to monitoring devices.
The adhesive layer of the stickers contains a section of hydrogel. This water-based material can easily transmit sound waves. In tests, the stickers stayed attached to the skin of volunteers who carried out activities such as sitting, standing, jogging, biking, and lifting weights. They produced high-resolution images for up to 48 hours.
The new process developed by the MIT team applies small ultrasound stickers to various body parts.
Making it wearable
How ultrasound and AI joined hands
At present, the stickers have to be connected via wires. However, the team is working on making them operate wirelessly.
Once this happens, packs of ultrasound stickers could be picked up by patients in the same way that they buy band-aids. In addition, AI-based software algorithms are being developed for these stickers. These will monitor organs, the progression of diseases, and the development of fetuses.
Wearable ultrasound devices can then be a part of an ecosystem that already includes fitness trackers and smartwatches. Moreover, wearable bio-sensors could become common in the years to come. AI and health technology will join hands to ensure a brighter future for everyone.