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These Ultrasound Stickers Can Look Inside Your Body

by Coffee Table Science

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), U.S., have developed stamp-sized ultrasound stickers that can adhere to the body parts and provide ultrasound images of the internal organs for 48 hours.

Currently, these devices are operated through wires, but the researchers plan to convert them into wireless stickers so that patients can use them as wearable devices and take them home from hospitals or even purchase them from a pharmacy. 

Image Credits: MIT News

Image Credits: MIT News

What is ultrasound imaging?

Ultrasound imaging is a non-invasive technique that does not involve introducing medical instruments into the body to get images of the patient’s internal organs. Clinicians use high-frequency sound waves to capture real-time images. These waves reflect from the organs and produce high-resolution images of deep organs like the heart, lungs, etc. 

Current ultrasound imaging techniques require heavy and specialized equipment that is usually available in a hospital or clinic. But, this new sticker can eliminate the need for conventional ultrasound procedures and improve diagnosis.  

How do these stickers help?

Traditional ultrasound methods require technicians to hold the probe or transducer (ultrasonic sensor) attached to a patient’s body. Typically, the technician applies a gel-like substance on the skin between the probe and body part that facilitates the penetration and reflection of sound waves. Further, when automation is applied like a robotic arm, the gel squeezes out, causing disturbances during the procedure. These problems limit long-term monitoring. 

Previously, researchers have developed portable designs for ultrasound probes, but they were unable to produce high-resolution images. Moreover, they were highly mobile and did not stick to their positions. As a result, they produced disoriented images. However, the new design can minimize these problems and ensure accurate diagnostic tests. 

How did researchers develop these stickers?

The new ultrasound sticker comes with a stretchy adhesive layer and rigid transducer. This makes the device stick to the skin no matter how much movement a patient does. It has three layers made from elastomers (polymers having high elasticity and viscosity). The middle layer has a solid hydrogel that enables the transmission of sound waves to retain images. The elastomer prevents dehydration of hydrogel and provides adhesive properties to the sticker. 

Image Credits: Newscientist

To test the device, researchers placed it on the various body parts of volunteers, such as the chest, neck and abdomen. It stayed attached to the skin and produced clear images for 48 hours, while the volunteers were asked to perform activities like jogging, lifting weights and biking. The team could monitor the movements of blood vessels, underlying muscles and deep organs. 

The future plans

Though the existing design needs connecting stickers to image translating instruments, the team plans to make them work wirelessly. In the current state, these stickers can be used for immediate applications, such as monitoring heart rate, breathing rate, etc. They can continuously examine internal organs without requiring a clinician to hold a probe for long periods. Further, they are developing AI-driven (artificial intelligence) software algorithms that can diagnose and interpret images efficiently. 

“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,” said Xuanhe Zhao, the study’s senior author. “We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.”

The research has been published in the journal Science

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