Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Australian technology news, reviews, and guides to help you
Checking a Fitbit for exercise information

Australian research could see wearables diagnose heart attacks

A smart watch or smart band is great at tracking calories lost, movement, and tracking your sleep, but what if they could predict more serious conditions?

As technology improves, devices that take up our lives get smaller and more advanced, and you only need to look at your phone for proof.

Once a giant hulking thing, a cellular phone was originally just that — a phone — but in the past 20 to 30 years, it has become the computer many of us rely on. They do so much these days, and phone calls have largely taken a back seat to the functionality of a modern day phone. They’re your media player so you don’t need one of those, and a camera, video game system, eReader, web browser, email client, and can act as your debit and credit card.

It’s not just something that happens to phones, and happens to other pieces of technology, too. You might be used to wearing a traditional watch, but these days, timepieces can do a lot more than simply tell you the hour, minute, and second of the day. They can track steps, give you a gauge of how many calories you’ve potentially lost, monitor your heart rate, and provide an indication of your sleeping patterns, and that’s just the start. Some devices, like the Apple Watch, can work as an Electrocardiogram — an ECG — though that functionality is disabled in Australia.

The next generation of wearable devices could be used to do a whole lot more, such as diagnosing conditions including epilepsy, heart attacks, and natal conditions such as preeclampsia and feral arrhythmias.

It’s a concept being explored at the University of South Australia, where biomedical engineer Professor Benjamin Thierry is working with the sensors in wearables to map and record magnetic fields from the electrical activity found in the heart, with the result hopefully telling wearable devices if the conditions are suggestive of conditions.

“Wearable consumer products such as the Fitbit are already mainstream, yet the enormous transformative medical potential of wearable technologies is yet to be realised,” said Professor Thierry.

“There is a huge opportunity for us to create wearable devices capable of better diagnosing and monitoring medical conditions, particularly in rural and remote settings where patients often do not have access to the testing and specialist care that is available in cities,” he said.

Exercising and running with a Fitbit

Professor Thierry and the University of South Australia have been granted nearly $2.2 million from the National Health, Medical and Research Council (NHRMC) to develop this technology over the next few years, which work with the sensor technology that is commonplace in modern day wearables, albeit in a slightly different way.

“These wearables use a cutting-edge solid-state sensing technology called Field Effect Transistors (FETs), which can measure bioelectric signals with extreme sensitivity when implemented at the nanoscale,” he said.

He told Pickr that while most of the work has been focused on “conventional applications” of the sensor technology, “the general concept is to use these ultra sensitive FETs to measure the bio electric signals associated to physiological parameters”, which in turn can be mapped to describe a condition.

“Some of the technologies I hope to develop include wearable devices able to continuously and accurately monitor the ECG, which could in turn predict epileptic seizures or detect preeclampsia and other related pregnancy complications,” he said.

And if that sounds a little too technical for you, it means that in the future, Australian ingenuity could see future wearables able to use the signals your body is giving off to predict future conditions. It’s still a ways off, but it could be in the pipeline, and builds on some of Professor Thierry’s previous work at the University of South Australia, which includes a disposable inexpensive handheld device that can warn doctors whether a woman has preeclampsia from a drop of blood.

For now, you’ll have to keep heading to the doctor to find out if something is wrong, but in the next few years, it is entirely possible that your Fitbit or whatever else you wear will be able to do some of the heavy lifting and advise you of any major conditions even before it gets to that point.

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