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Novel Endoscopic Sensor System Measures Faulty Gut Electrical Signals for Detection of GI Disorders

By HospiMedica International staff writers
Posted on 08 Mar 2024
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Image: The stomach probes go down the esophagus before being inflated in the gut (Photo courtesy of University of Auckland)
Image: The stomach probes go down the esophagus before being inflated in the gut (Photo courtesy of University of Auckland)

Just as irregular electrical signals in the heart can cause serious cardiac issues, researchers have known that faulty bioelectric patterns in the gut can lead to symptoms like stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and bloating. Diagnosing these issues is challenging for physicians because the electrical signals in the gut are weaker and harder to measure than those in the heart, and typically, identifying a 'dysrhythmic' gut requires invasive surgery. However, a significant breakthrough has been achieved with the development of an endoscopic sensor device that could allow doctors to diagnose hard-to-identify stomach complaints without the need for invasive surgery.

Approximately a third of patients who seek medical help for gut-related symptoms exhibit some kind of electrical abnormality. Conditions such as 'functional dyspepsia', stomach issues with no apparent structural cause, affect between 5% and 11% of the population. These patients often endure a long journey toward a proper diagnosis, with some even being mistakenly referred to psychiatrists under the assumption that their symptoms are psychosomatic. Historically, since the early 1900s, it has been understood that the gut is governed by electrical signals, similar to the heart. Recent scientific efforts have focused on understanding these faulty gut electrics, but initial studies were hampered by the need for open surgery to place electrodes on the stomach's exterior due to the gut's weak electrical signals. The endoscopic mapping device, developed more than a decade ago by scientists at the University of Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand), aims to give clinicians a clearer picture of exactly where the electrical signals are misfiring.

This innovative device features an inflatable sphere covered with sensors that are passed down the esophagus, enabling the measurement of gut electrical activity. While it may take up to five more years for this endoscopic device to become globally available in hospitals, the recent human studies mark a critical first step. Initial results from 13 patients have been published, and additional promising data from 35 patients have been gathered since. The next phase involves using data from these clinical studies to refine the device's design, particularly enhancing the filtering of electrical signals. This improvement aims to separate gut signals from external 'noise' such as equipment vibrations or movement around the patient. Although the team has successfully isolated stomach signals from this noise, further refinement is anticipated to enhance this capability.

“This is a critical step, taking us from engineering and pre-clinical work to real patients,” said University of Auckland gastrointestinal researcher Dr. Tim Angeli-Gordon, the head of the team which has developed the endoscopic sensor device. “It’s very difficult to do, but this is the dream; the pinnacle of bioengineering.”

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