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Your Body as a Medical Network

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Medical researchers at the University of Buffalo (UB) are working to develop a human “body area network” technology based on ultrasound waves. Using a miniaturized version of the same sonar technology used for submarine communications, the researchers hope to create a real-time sensor network inside the human body capable of treating diseases such as diabetes and heart failure, according to a Science Daily report.

“This is a biomedical advancement that could revolutionize the way we care for people suffering from the major diseases of our time,” Tommaso Melodia, PhD, UB associate professor of electrical engineering, was quoted as saying.

Researchers began exploring the use of ultrasound to construct body area sensor networks some ten years ago, but they focused on using electromagnetic radio frequency waves, such as those used in cell phones, GPS and other common wireless devices. These generate heat and don’t pass through human body tissue easily, which means “they require relatively large amounts of energy,” according to the Science Daily report.

Sound travels some 4.3 faster in water than in air, however, and the human body is around 65% water, which led researchers to consider using ultrasound as opposed to radio waves.

“Think of how the Navy uses sonar to communicate between submarines and detect enemy ships,” Melodia elaborated. “It’s the same principle, only applied to ultrasonic sensors that are small enough to work together inside the human body and more effectively help treat diseases.”

Recipients of a $449,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Melodia, PhD student G. Enrico Santagati and undergraduate students are aiming to develop:

  • design transmission schemes to accurately relay information between sensors without causing body tissue to overheat
  • design networking protocols specialized for intra-body sensors
  • how to model ultrasonic interference
  • accurately simulate ultrasonic networks
  • design the first existing reconfigurable testbed for experimental evaluation of ultrasonic networks

As an example, a network of blood glucose sensors based on ultrasound wave communication along with insulin pumps might be implanted inside the body of someone with diabetes. The sensors would monitor blood sugar levels and pump insulin into the bloodstream as required in real-time, according to the report.

“We are really just scratching the surface of what’s possible. There are countless potential applications,” Melodia said.

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