Northwestern University Introduces Game-Changing Wearables

Northwestern University researchers have unveiled soft, miniaturized wearable devices designed to continuously track vital sounds within the body. The devices, adhered to the skin, go beyond episodic measurements during occasional doctor exams, providing real-time, wireless monitoring at multiple locations across the body. The technology captures sounds such as air moving in and out of the lungs, heartbeats, and digestive processes, offering valuable insights into a person's health.

In pilot studies, the researchers tested the devices on premature babies with respiratory and intestinal motility disorders and adults, including those with chronic lung diseases. The devices demonstrated clinical-grade accuracy and introduced new functionalities not previously available in research or clinical care. The devices use pairs of high-performance digital microphones and accelerometers to create a non-invasive sensing network, encapsulated in soft silicone. The devices, measuring 40mm x 20mm x 8mm, include a flash memory drive, battery, electronic components, and Bluetooth capabilities.

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The technology allows for the continuous monitoring and spatial mapping of body sounds, providing insights into airflow in the lungs, cardiac rhythm changes, and the movement of food, gas, and fluids through the intestines. By capturing sounds in both directions, the devices can separate external ambient sounds from internal body sounds. The devices have shown promise in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), where premature babies with respiratory and gastrointestinal issues are monitored non-invasively and continuously.

Dr. Ankit Bharat, a thoracic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine, highlighted the device's ability to simultaneously listen to and compare different regions of the lungs, providing a dynamic assessment of lung health. The devices can be considered equivalent to having multiple doctors listen to different regions of the lungs simultaneously, enabling a comprehensive understanding of a patient's respiratory health.

The researchers also emphasized the devices' potential for monitoring infants' breathing patterns and detecting apneas, a leading cause of prolonged hospitalization and potential death in premature babies. In addition to respiratory monitoring, the devices were used to track intestinal motility, providing insights into digestive processes and potential gastrointestinal complications.

The new technology not only improves the accuracy and continuous monitoring of patient health but also eliminates the need for various sensors, wires, and cables connected to bedside monitors. The researchers envision the devices guiding clinical decisions, personalizing treatments, and improving outcomes for patients with respiratory and gastrointestinal conditions.

The study, titled "Wireless broadband acousto-mechanical sensors as body area networks for continuous physiological monitoring," was published in the journal Nature Medicine and received support from the Querrey-Simpson Institute for Bioelectronics at Northwestern University.