New stick-on ‘sonar’ device lets you watch your own heart beat

This wearable patch takes the next big step in personalized medicine

ultrasound patch on skin

When stuck to skin, a new ultrasound patch (pictured) can reveal blood flow and changes in the underlying tissue.

C. Wang et al/Science 2022

Imagine having a watch that could live-stream your heart as it beats in your chest. Researchers may have taken the first step down that road. They’ve just unveiled a wearable ultrasound patch — something like a Band-Aid with sonar. This stick-on device offers a flexible way to see deep inside the body. 

Ultrasound maps tissues and fluids by recording how sound waves bounce off of them. That tool can help doctors scout signs of organ damage or diagnose cancer. It can even track bacteria. But most ultrasound machines aren’t portable. There are wearable ones — but they tend to struggle to spot details or can be used for only short periods. 

The new patch can work for up to 48 hours straight — even while you’re moving around a lot, like when you play a sport. Plus, this patch sees just as well as the machines in hospitals, its developers say. They described their new system in the July 29 Science

“This is just the beginning,” says Xuanhe Zhao. He’s a mechanical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He was part of the team that created the new device. Next, Zhao’s team will make the patch wireless so it can talk to phones.

This has a lot of medical possibilities. Say you stick a patch over someone’s heart. The images it would take might help predict heart attacks and blood clots months before disaster hits, says Aparna Singh. She’s a biomedical engineer at Columbia University in New York City who did not take part in this research. Placed on a COVID-19 patient, the patch — which is only about the size of a quarter — might become an easy way to spot lung problems as they develop.

In many poorer countries, access to hospitals — and their high-power imaging machines — can be limited. But the new device “has a huge potential” to aid people in these parts of the world, Singh says. Right now, the patch costs about $100 to make. But its designers hope to bring that cost down.

Asa Stahl is the 2022 AAAS Mass Media fellow with Science News. He is a 5th year Astrophysics Ph.D. student at Rice University, where his research focuses on detecting and characterizing young stars and planets.

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