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First Ever Wearable Sensor Detects and Monitors Muscle Atrophy

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 20 Mar 2023
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Image: A new device could allow for easier, less costly tracking of muscle atrophy (Photo courtesy of Pexels)
Image: A new device could allow for easier, less costly tracking of muscle atrophy (Photo courtesy of Pexels)

Muscle atrophy is a medical condition marked by the reduction of skeletal muscle mass and strength, which can occur due to several reasons like degenerative diseases, aging, and muscle disuse. Monitoring and assessing muscle size and volume using MRI scans can be expensive and time-consuming. Now, researchers have developed the first-ever wearable sensor that can detect and track muscle atrophy. The electromagnetic sensor, made using conductive "e-threads," offers an alternative to frequent MRI monitoring of muscle atrophy.

Researchers at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH, USA) leveraged their previous work in creating health sensors for NASA for the first-ever approach to monitoring muscle atrophy using a wearable device. The health of astronauts is of paramount importance to NASA as prolonged stays in space typically lead to adverse effects on the human body. Researchers have been working tirelessly for years to comprehend and overcome these effects, and this study was motivated by the objective of finding the answers to potential health challenges faced by astronauts. Although scientists are aware that short spaceflights can cause up to a 20% loss in muscle mass and bone density of crew members, there is limited information on the effects of prolonged spaceflight on the human body.

Developing a wearable device that can accurately track even minute muscle changes in the human body is a challenging task. The researchers devised a device that operates by employing two coils - one that transmits and the other that receives - in concert with a conductor consisting of e-threads arranged in a unique zig-zag pattern throughout the fabric. Although the end product closely resembles a blood pressure cuff, the primary challenge was in creating an adjustable pattern that could accommodate diverse-sized limbs. After several trials, they discovered that a zig-zag pattern was ideal for maximizing flexibility, whereas sewing in a straight line constrained it. The same pattern innovation is why the sensor can be scaled up for use across multiple body parts or even various locations on the same limb.

In order to validate their research, the researchers developed 3D-printed molds of limbs and filled them with ground beef to mimic the calf tissue of an average-sized human subject. Their findings revealed that the sensor could accurately measure minute volumetric changes in the overall limb size and monitor up to 51% in muscle loss. Although the wearable device is still some years away from being used, the researchers have opined that the next significant move would be to link the device to a mobile app capable of documenting and providing health data directly to healthcare providers. The researchers aim to combine the sensor with other health monitoring devices, such as a tool for identifying bone loss, to subsequently improve life for future patients, both on Earth and in space.

“Ideally, our proposed sensor could be used by health care providers to more personally implement treatment plans for patients and to create less of a burden on the patient themselves,” said Allyanna Rice, lead author of the study and a graduate fellow in electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University. “Our sensor is something that an astronaut on a long mission or a patient at home could use to keep track of their health without the help of a medical professional. In the future, we would like to integrate more sensors and even more capabilities with our wearable.”

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