PhotoIt sounds like something a medical James Bond might come up with. Your smartphone rings with a warning from sensors embedded in your underwear – you are about to have a heart attack.

It's not fiction but reality, say engineers at the University of Arkansas, who have developed a wireless health-monitoring system that gathers critical patient information, regardless of the patient’s location, and communicates that information in real time to a physician, hospital or directly to the patient.

The system is comprised of tiny fabric sensors integrated into a conventional sports bra for women and vest for men. A lightweight and wireless module snaps onto the garments, allowing the sensors to communicate with system software that relies on a smart phone to collect information, compress it and send it over a variety of wireless networks.

E-bra

“Our e-bra enables continuous, real-time monitoring to identify any pathophysiological changes,” said Vijay Varadan, a professor of electrical engineering who took a lead role in the project. “It is a platform on which various sensors for cardiac-health monitoring are integrated into the fabric. The garment collects and transmits vital health signals to any desired location in the world.”

In a way it's like having your vital signs monitored 24-7. The system monitors blood pressure, body temperature, respiratory rate, oxygen consumption, some neural activity and all the readings provided by a conventional electrocardiograph (ECG), including the ability to display inverted T waves, which indicate the onset of cardiac arrest.

The system does not require a cuff or any extra accessories to measure blood pressure and could therefore replace conventional blood-pressure monitors, the engineers say. It could also replace the cumbersome combination of ECG sensors and wires attached to patients while they walk on treadmills.

Signals sent to wireless module

Electrical signals and other physiological data gathered by the sensors are sent to the snap-on wireless module, the contents of which are housed in a plastic box that is slightly smaller than a ring box. As the critical wireless component, the module is essentially a low-powered laptop computer that includes an amplifier, an antenna, a printed circuit board, a microprocessor, a Bluetooth module, a battery and various sensors.

The size of the module depends heavily on power consumption and minimum battery size. Varadan said that anticipated battery and Bluetooth upgrades will allow the researchers to build a smaller – 1.5 inches long, 0.75 inch wide and 0.25 inch deep – lighter and flexible module that will replace the rigid box.

This is your heart calling

Data from the sensors then stream to ordinary cell phones and hand-held devices, which expand the use of the system beyond health care. By carrying a cell phone, athletes can monitor their vitals, as well as other metrics, such as number of calories burned during a workout. To render clean data, the software includes filtering algorithms to mitigate problems due to motion of the hand-held device during exercise.

Not only is the high-tech clothing a way for patients to know when to head for the emergency room, the software can also send the data directly to the patient's doctor. A GPS system will tell the health care provider the patient's location.

Who would use the system? Patients at risk of a heart attack, for one. Especially patients who had already suffered one or more such attacks.


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