Researchers at Ohio State University have fabricated a wearable sensor designed to detect and monitor muscle atrophy. A condition involving the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, muscle atrophy can happen for a variety of reasons, but is typically a side effect of degenerative disease, aging or muscle disuse. While physicians currently rely on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess whether a patient’s muscle size and volume have deteriorated, frequent testing can be time-consuming and costly.
The new study published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering suggests that an electromagnetic sensor made of conductive material could be used as an alternative to frequent monitoring using MRI. To validate their work, researchers fabricated 3D-printed limb molds and filled them with ground beef to simulate the calf tissue of an average-sized human subject. Their findings showed that they were able to demonstrate the sensor could measure small-scale volume changes in overall limb size and monitor muscle loss of up to 51 percent.
“Ideally, our proposed sensor could be used by health care providers to more personally implement treatment plans for patients and to create less of a burden on the patients,” said Allyanna Rice, lead author of the study and a graduate fellow in electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State.
The first known approach to monitoring muscle atrophy using a wearable device, the study builds on Rice’s previous work in creating health sensors for NASA. The space agency is interested, as spending large amounts of time in space can often have detrimental effects on the human body, including atrophied muscles. While scientists know that even crew members on short spaceflights can experience up to a 20 percent loss in muscle mass and bone density, there isn’t much data on what effect living in space for much longer missions could have on their bodies, Rice said.
Although the researchers’ final product resembles a blood pressure cuff, Rice said it was originally a challenge to find a pattern that would allow for a wide range of changes to the size of the sensor’s loop so it would be able to fit a large portion of the population. “We needed a sensor that can change and flex,” she says, “But it also needs to be conformal.”
To improve life for future patients both on earth and in space, Rice is looking forward to combining the sensor with other kinds of devices for detecting and monitoring health issues, such as a tool for detecting bone loss. The work was supported by NASA.