By Dave Andrusko
Over the years I have written many times about the “old days”–back in the 1980s–and the primitive black and white ultrasounds whose fuzziness was exceeded only by the parents’ determination to “see” arms and legs amidst a fog of blurriness.
Now their successors–3-D and 4-D color ultrasounds–are about to be themselves replaced. A group of Brazilian researchers at Rio’s Clínica de Diagnóstico Por Images have combined ultrasound and MRI technologies to allow parents to see their unborn child in 3-D virtual reality. It truly is astonishing. (A rendition can be viewed at www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-technology-shows-fetuses-inside-using-virtual-reality-180961193/#vilugPUtI0GYwupk.99.)
Here’s how it works, according to Alexandra Ossola:
First, technicians take a scan of the fetus as usual with ultrasound. But if a second, higher-resolution scan is needed, they might turn to MRI for more detail, which uses powerful magnets and bursts of radio waves to distinguish different types of tissues within the body. …
Once they have the scan, the researchers can use the data to make a 3D rendering of the fetus, which takes 22 seconds. Then that can then be converted to virtual reality.
The researchers have been testing their virtual reality renderings on Oculus Rift 2 headsets, which has been “wonderful”—not only is the VR image sharper and crisper than previous imaging techniques, it’s cheaper than commonly-used 3D renderings because it doesn’t have to be printed out, says Werner. Parents can see renderings of their baby anytime after the 12th week of pregnancy.
In other words, as Science Editor Sarah Knapton put it, “The 3D images are brought to life using Oculus Rift headsets.” But that’s not all.
The headsets “also play the sound of the baby’s heartbeat. Parents are able to look around their unborn child in virtual reality by moving their head.”
But the goal is not only to help parents bond earlier with their unborn child or to educate them to the intricacies of the growing unborn child (the technology recreates the entire structure of the baby). Prof. Simon Fishel, the president of Care Fertility, told Knapton, “Anything that improves the opportunity to observe fetal health accurately is important, especially with advancing surgical technology that is now being used successfully on the fetus in the womb , where applicable.”
Reporting for StatNews, Rebecca Robbins noted that co-author Heron Werner
an OB/GYN specializing in fetal medicine at Rio’s Clínica de Diagnóstico Por Imagem, said the technology’s greatest potential lies in helping guide medical decisions for fetuses with potential health problems.
He said the visualizations did a remarkable job capturing abnormalities like cleft lips, tumors, and hernias in utero.
As is always the case with potential breakthroughs, there are many questions to be resolved. This is expensive and would not normally be used in pregnancies thought to be progressing smoothly.
But Prof. Charles Kingsland, of the Hewitt Fertility Centre in Liverpool, may have put it best when he said, “This clearly is an exciting piece of work with potential benefits for diagnosing more accurately, abnormalities in unborn babies with the added potential of correcting them earlier.”
The researchers will present their work next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America held in Chicago and later provide a more in-depth presentation.