New system monitors fetal heartbeat

Tiny fluctuations in a fetus’s heartbeat can indicate distress, but currently there is no way to detect such subtle variations except during labor, when it could be too late to prevent serious or even fatal complications.

Now, a new system developed by an MIT scientist and colleagues including an obstetrician could allow much earlier monitoring of the fetal heartbeat. The additional researchers are from the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble, Sharif University, Tufts Medical Center, and E-TROLZ Inc.

Among other advantages, the system is expected to be less expensive and easier to use than current technologies. It could also cut the rate of Cesarean deliveries by helping clinicians rule out potential problems that might otherwise prompt the procedure. Finally, the device used today to monitor subtle changes in the fetal heartbeat during labor must be attached to the fetus itself, but the new product would be noninvasive.

“Our objective is to make a monitoring system that’s simultaneously cheaper and more effective” than what is currently available, said Gari Clifford, PhD, a principal research scientist at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Clifford expects that the system could be commercially available in two to three years pending FDA approval.

The new system separates the maternal ECG signal from the fetus’s and background noise thanks to a complex algorithm derived from the fields of signal processing and source separation. Together, these fields work to break any signal into its source components.

To use the system, which the team believes could be deployed during the second trimester of pregnancy (around 20 weeks) and perhaps earlier, a woman would wear a wide belt around her abdomen fitted with several ECG electrodes. (The prototype has 32, but that number will be lower in the final device.) The data collected from those electrodes are then fed to a monitor and analyzed with the new algorithm, which in turn separates the different signals.

The large amounts of 3-D data captured with the new system could also open up a new field of research: fetal electrocardiography. “The world of fetal ECG analysis is almost completely unexplored,” Clifford said, because the current monitoring system can only be used during labor and “essentially gives only a monocular view.”

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA



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