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Scientists Develop Wireless Sensors That Monitor NICU Babies

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Scientists have created wireless sensors that will soon help cut the cord when monitoring premature and sick babies in NICU.

Researchers are now preparing the sensors for a pilot trial that will start in April.

How It Works

John Rogers, a bioengineer and professor at Northwestern University, and his team developed sensors that do away with wires and harmful adhesives. The sensors use near-field communication (NFC), the same technology found in smartphones with contactless payments and wireless charging.

To do this, the team attached the sensors to an ultrathin silicone that mimics the skin. This material clings to the skin without the help of adhesives. The sensors are waterproof and have spring-like electronics to help them adjust with body movements.

It's worth mentioning that these sensors do not need batteries to work, hence making them as lightweight as possible. What runs them is a transmitter that's hidden under the patient's bed, which transmits power to the sensors. Again, it's the same concept found in smartphones with wireless charging capabilities. At the same time, the sensors send a baby's vital signs to a computer.

To test its accuracy, researchers conducted testing on 20 preterm babies at NICUs affiliated with the Northwestern University. According to the researchers, the wireless sensors worked fine during the trial, which is detailed in the journal Science.

However, the researchers acknowledged that this technology would still need to undergo further testing before they receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Monitoring Preemies' Vitals

NICU babies need round-the-clock monitoring, and these are done by sticking electrodes on a baby's skin. The electrodes are connected to machines that monitor the child's heartbeat, breathing, and other vital signs. Though extremely helpful, these monitoring machines and wires unfortunately have their downsides.

For starters, the adhesives used to attach electrodes on babies can damage their fragile skin. Removing them, no matter how careful, will most likely lead to scarring and other injuries, as a preterm baby's skin is not yet fully developed.

Also, skin-to-skin contact is an important part of a preterm baby's development, and wires attached to the monitors also pose another disadvantage, as these prevent parents and nurses from holding the baby properly. Moreover, mothers often have a hard time breastfeeding preemies due to wire attachments.

The new wireless sensors developed by Rogers and his team not only aim to eliminate these problems but also to give cheaper options to developing countries that lack monitoring machines for NICUs. According to Rogers, the sensors would only cost around $10 to $15 to make.

Having received funding from Save the Children and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, his team is now planning to test about 20,000 sensors in developing countries such as Zambia, India, and Pakistan.

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