MIT’s new sensor is like a high-tech stethoscope that you swallow. The little bullet-like pill roams your body, monitoring your vital signs as it goes. How? By listening.
The ingestible sensor measures heart-rate and breathing as it passes through your gastrointestinal tract. The little device is smart enough to distinguish the sound-waves generated by your lungs as you in-and-exhale and to listen for the beating of your heart. It does this via tiny microphones like you’d find in your cell phone.
“Through characterization of the acoustic wave, recorded from different parts of the GI tract, we found that we could measure both heart rate and respiratory rate with good accuracy,” Giovanni Traverso, one of the researchers on the project, told MIT News.
Because you can swallow it and forget about it, the sensor has a wide range of practical uses outside of the hospital, where you’d have to lay hooked up to big machines. The makers cite trauma patients, soldiers in battle, and the long-term monitoring of chronic patients as potential use-cases. For instance, putting external sensors on the skin of an extreme burn victim is impractical, but they could swallow the almond-sized sensor easily enough.
Such a device would be good for diagnosis, too. Tests for some conditions require the subject wear sensors for 24 hours at a time, which is a big strain on both the patient’s comfort and the hospital’s resources. The pill sensor is a great alternative. And in the military, say the makers, similar devices could monitor for “dehydration, tachycardia, or shock.”
Once swallowed, the device can be read wirelessly from up to 10 feet away. Due to the ever-moving nature of the gastrointestinal tract, it only stays inside the body for a day or two, so long-term users would need to pop the “pill” fairly regularly. Even this, though, is way easier than the invasive alternatives, and the sensors could, theoretically, be re-used.
The next step is to build a commercially-ready version that is fully self-contained and can operate wirelessly for periods of time. This version, which is planned to eventually be subjected to FDA trials, will also include a temperature monitor. Traverso hopes that one day his team’s sensors could track down specific pathogens and “ then deliver an antibiotic, for example.” And if that sounds like a movie plot to you, that’s because it is.