If you’ve ever been to the hospital, you probably are famiiar with the holter monitor , a device for measuring electrical activity in the nervous system. And you probably also know what holters tend to look like: a bunch of unsightly and uncomfortable plastic patches and wires attached to a bulky, beeping screen. The alternative  could come in the form of a system being developed by researchers at Carlos III University  in Madrid that uses a tank top instead of rubber suckers, and dispenses with the wires in favor of, well, a completely wireless set-up.
Not only is the tank top less intrusive and more comfortable than traditional biomonitoring systems, say the researchers, it also is just a fraction of the cost. Alongside the washable T-shirt, whch contains a series of electrodes that measure and record bioelectrical activity, the system also includes a removable thermometer and accelerometer that measures temperature and movement, and a separate positioning device that allows doctors and nurses to keep track of where patients are.
José Ignacio Moreno of the UC3M's department of telematic engineering says the aim of the project was to build something that users barely know they are wearing:
"The main problem with the old equipment is it is quite intrusive. It needs to be carried, and the mobility of the persons is limited by the cables. With the T-shirt, you just put it on, and move easily. Our aim was to build something based on wireless technology that would be able to send information from a person to a central point."
The T-shirt has been in development for two years with several private companies, and was tested for three months in the cardiology unit at La Paz Hospital  in Madrid. Moreno says the current version does not provide the same level of information as a holter, but could be useful as an intermediate device--for example, as an initial check on a patient's health. "What the doctors at La Paz said was the T-shirt may be good when you still have to decide whether deeper analysis is needed or not. At the moment, it’s the holter or nothing else."
In the next few months, the team will develop a belt to go with the shirt, and look at applications outside the hospital.The current system works on Wi-Fi-like technology, but Moreno says it could also run over a range-extending GSM network. That would potentially allow patients to return home with the reassurance that health is still being followed. Doctors and nurses can already set the system to bleep a pager or send a text message if a patient's vital signs fall too far.
Moreno says the T-shirts could also be used outdoors--for instance, by joggers and high-performance athletes. Several Spanish footballers have died  in action in the last few years, leading to calls for better health monitoring.
In the next two months, Moreno says his team will add more sensors to improve the data, and combine the two monitoring units into one. Once the tweaks are made, he expects the first units to be in full use within six months. For patients attached to all those wires, the T-shirts can't come too soon.
[Images: Flickr user Alin S , UC3M]