By: Saloni Shah
A team of researchers is on a mission to make portable, cheap, small imaging machines that will transform healthcare and even lead to brain-to-brain communication.
What if we can replace the huge expensive MRI machine with a cheap wearable device that can produce diagnostic images with similar high quality resolution?
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has been used since the 1980s to scan patients. The patient lies on a moveable examination table and slides into a large cylinder-shaped tube surrounded by a circular magnet. Many patients find it uncomfortable to remain still during MRI, others experience claustrophobia, and the procedure takes 50 minutes on average. Moreover, MRI equipment is very expensive, around $5 million, and the huge equipment is a two-ton machine in a hospital room.
Caption: MRI machine costs millions of dollars and each scan costs thousands of dollars
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Mary Lou Jespen, founder of a startup called Openwater and former Google and Facebook executive, has come up with a new transformative imaging technology that can produce high quality results using liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and near infrared (NIR) light.
How does the technology work?
Caption: Light Spectrum
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Traditional M.R.I., or magnetic resonance imaging, uses magnetic fields and radio waves to take images of internal organs. Instead, Jepsen’s technology uses NIR light and ultrasonic pings. Since the speed of sound is much slower than the speed of light, the pings are emitted first and then the NIR light so that both arrive at the same time. The light illuminates the oxygen flow in a person’s body and changes colors as it moves past various structures in the body making it translucent. This infrared passes through the body and measures the oxygen in your blood based on how much infrared light is absorbed as it passes through. The NIR light is also scattered by the flesh and bone. This scattered light can be captured and inverted into a holographic image which can then be used as a lens to focus the NIR light deep into the body to take images of internal organs. These low-cost images are of similar quality as those taken by a large and expensive MRI machine and could be used to detect tumors, clogged arteries, internal bleeding, blood clots and early and timely detection of other neurological disorders.
This revolutionary new technology can be put in a device as small as a hat or in a scarf that can wrapped around any body part. The device can be used to monitor tumors and as an aid to decide when surgery is needed and also to avoid biopsies and possible surgeries. The portable, wearable device can enable the doctors to monitor how the patients respond to different therapies even after the patients go home.
It would also lead to significant reduction in cost - according to a study in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), the U.S. spent 17.8 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on medical spending. The higher medical spending can be attributed to greater use of expensive medical technologies like MRI. According to the study, U.S performed 118 MRIs per 1,000 people with an average MRI cost of $1,145 per scan.
The new cheaper technology would provide easy access to medical imaging - according to Jepsen, currently MRI technology is not available to two-thirds of the world population, especially in the poor and developing countries. Jepsen’s vision is to flood the consumer market with cheap mass production of LCDs and light detectors in Asia’s consumer electronics factories and to make these machines available in every drug store next to the blood pressure cuff.
Brain-to-brain communication in the near future is a reality with this radical advancement in brain imaging technology. It is possible to exchange our thoughts since the wavelength of near infra-red light is smaller than a micron and can make our thoughts visible. The new telepathy gadget will open the pandora’s box and raise ethical and legal implications that the society needs to address. Called a “thinking cap” by Jepsen, this new technology will be able to both read and to output your own thoughts, as well as read the thoughts of others. The privacy of our thoughts, which is a right we take for granted, can begin to be questioned if can be required to wear the thinking hat by the police, the military, or parents.
The technology is real and viable; currently Openwater has developed prototype versions of its technology and is successfully performing experiments on rats. Preliminary results show that the images created with the new technology are as accurate or better than what can be created using the current MRI technology.
We need to start the discussion now on how this transformative technology will change our everyday lives and possibly the norms of our society.
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