Existing techniques for predicting premature birth can be inadequate or invasive -- with risks and discomfort. Researcher Chiara Rabotti (Eindhoven University of Technology) developed a new measuring method, based on a rather simple electrode plaster that is attached to the abdomen. In the future every pregnant woman can thereby calmly await the moment, Rabotti expects.
Premature birth is the main cause of baby mortality and permanent handicaps. Unfortunately, premature birth is still difficult to predict, due to inadequate techniques. The only reliable method existing is based on the insertion of a catheter, which presents discomfort for the woman as well as a risk to the fetus. Existing measurement methods on the outside of the body have so far yielded inaccurate prognoses.
PhD candidate Chiara Rabotti therefore developed a technique that monitors the basis of childbirth: uterine contractions. All muscles are triggered by electrical pulses. This means that you can measure the activity of the uterine muscles by measuring those pulses, which can also be detected outside the abdomen. The Italian researcher used existing measuring instruments for this, although these had not been applied earlier to measure uterine activity. Her research focused on the question whether and how she can use the measurement data to give a reliable picture of the uterine activity. Among other things she developed a mathematical model to translate the electric signals into images and graphs. In the end she managed to produce good results with an electrode plaster of merely three by three centimeters that were at least as good as the results obtained before with the invasive method mentioned above. She conducted her research inter alia at the Máxima Medical Center in Veldhoven.
Rabotti expects that her technique will be available in some five years. At present it is possible to measure the activity of the womb, but it is still unknown what the pattern measured indicates as to the moment of delivery. This will require the monitoring of the final stage of pregnancy in many women. To this end a large-scale European project has been started, in which Rabotti is involved as well.
Initially the technique will be applied mainly in hospital, in case of complications. Still, Rabotti's supervisor, professor Jan Bergmans from the Electrical Engineering Department, is already looking ahead. For instance, before long physicians will be able to monitor the pregnancy at a distance. The pregnant woman is comfortably at home, and the signal measured is transmitted to the hospital on line. In addition, the technique can be made even more comfortable, by incorporating the electrode into clothes.
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