To add some powerful new data to doctors and scientists understanding of birth, a baby was just born for the first time inside an MRI machine. The amazing images needed some innovative adaptions of medical obstetric tech so everything worked.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is an amazingly powerful, truly sci-fi-like technology that has none of the "dangerous rays" worries about other medical imaging techniques like CT scans, and since its inception in the 1970s it's revealed many human and animal biological secrets from the way our brains work in real time, to how our joints move, to how blood flows through the tiniest vessels in the body. Pretty much every sector of human biology (including sex) has been explored—except one: Live human birth, which until this week hadn't been attempted.
Now it has, with great success at Berlin's Charité University. Philips, which provided the open high-field MRI machine itself, noted that this is the first time ever that it's been possible to obtain images "showing the inside of the mother's body and showing the movement of the child in the birth canal until the head emerged." Both mother and child are perfectly well, Philips notes, and the birth had zero complications, which means the imaging system didn't inhibit the birth and endanger anyone's health or affect the scientific validity of the data (though we hope they had little ear muffs for the baby—MRI machines can be terrifyingly loud).
The MRI machine, as part of the experiment, had to be extensively modified so that it was useable for creating images during the birth procedure, and the entire affair took two years of R&D to achieve. But not just the MRI needed innovative tweaking—the team also had to "develop a new type of foetal surveillance monitor" which could keep tabs on the health of the baby in real time without being interfered with by the MRI's massive, quick-changing magnetic field or risk harming anyone by flying around under the influence of the field. The new monitor, adapted from a Philips Avalon wireless unit, kept track of the foetal heart performance, mother's blood pressure and contraction strength in real time. Considering the injuries that patients around the world have experienced due to MRI magnetic interactions with "forgotten" pacemakers and so on, this is impressive.
Why was this birth carried out like this? Because the MRI doesn't irradiate its patients in the same sort of damaging way as X-rays do, meaning multiple high-resolution images could be taken of the birth throughout its progress, tracking how both the bodies of mother and baby behave. This is important because, oddly enough, there still remain some unknowns about the birth process, and, as Philips notes, there are still persistent "preconceived ideas which have been formed since the 19th century regarding the birth process and movements of the unborn child in the mother's pelvis." One big aim of the experiment was to glean understanding into why some 15% of all births have a "stalled labor" which can necessitate a Caesarian delivery.
The other thing this event highlights is that advanced medical imagining is very rapidly expanding into every corner of health care—and there are going to be inevitable, and important, benefits to medicine and science.
To read more news on this, and similar stuff, keep up with my updates by following me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.