March 5, 2013

Qatar Research Could Revolutionize Fetal And Newborn Healthcare

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A research project supported by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) is using signal detection to improve monitoring of the health of developing fetuses, with the promise of significant potential benefits for women in Qatar.

Through existing technology, movements of a fetus inside the womb can be read over time to detect any unusual patterns or a reduction in activity. However, this requires a level of expertise based on signal analysis and interpretation techniques that have been largely overlooked until now.

Dr Boualem Boashash of Qatar University’s College of Engineering, along with Australian colleagues from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research and the University of Melbourne’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, are conducting research under QNRF’s National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) on how to best utilize these techniques for monitoring fetal health.

“There are two major variables in a signal - time and frequency,” Dr Boashash explained. “The way our approach differs from classical techniques is that we are going to use these two variables concurrently. This is major because, in the past, either time-delineated or frequency information was used, but not the two combined. It would be like trying to represent a person by just looking at the height while the person’s weight and other factors are ignored.”

Rather than isolating frequency from time, Dr Boashash and the team use an integrated approach to signal analysis that allows them to extract more information on the movement of an unborn child - a key indicator of its health. The team has developed a sensor system that, when placed on the mother’s stomach, detects signals from movements inside the womb. The nature of these signals can be determined to detect any abnormalities in fetal development. In order to ensure that the mother’s movement is not mistaken for that of the fetus, a separate sensor is positioned on her back and those signals are read separately.

“Mothers can feel about a third of the movements made by the unborn baby and can often detect a change in the movement patterns,” Dr Boashash said. “However, because this varies from baby to baby, and woman to woman, some changes in movement patterns may go undetected. Sadly, some babies die in the womb following a period of time of decreased movements. Essentially, the aim of this project is to infer, from recordings of the fetal movements, what the health of the fetus is and try to make a decision before it is too late.”

Dr Boashash explained that the technology allows for continuous monitoring of the fetus so that any unusual signal patterns will be instantly sent to the physician. This would eliminate the need for frequent visits to the doctor and would, at the same time, monitor the health of the baby more effectively.

The team is also working on newborn monitor systems that work on the same premise, whereby signals from an infant’s brainwaves are transferred into sensors placed in a ‘hat’ worn just after birth.