A research project supported by Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) is using signal detection to improve monitoring of the health of developing foetuses, with the promise of significant potential benefits for women in Qatar.
Through existing technology, movements of a foetus inside the womb can be read over time to detect any unusual patterns or a reduction in activity. However, this requires a level of expertise based on signal analysis and interpretation techniques that have been largely overlooked until now.
Dr Boualem Boashash of Qatar University’s College of Engineering, along with Australian colleagues from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research and the University of Melbourne’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, are conducting research under QNRF’s National Priorities Research Program (NPRP) on how to best utilise these techniques for monitoring foetal health.
“There are two major variables in a signal - time and frequency,” Dr Boashash explained. “The way our approach differs from classical techniques is that we are going to use these two variables concurrently. This is major because, in the past, either time-delineated or frequency information was used, but not the two combined. It would be like trying to represent a person by just looking at the height while the person’s weight and other factors are ignored.”
Rather than isolating frequency from time, Dr Boashash and the team use an integrated approach to signal analysis that allows them to extract more information on the movement of an unborn child - a key indicator of its health. The team has developed a sensor system that, when placed on the mother’s stomach, detects signals from movements inside the womb. The nature of these signals can be determined to detect any abnormalities in foetal development. In order to ensure that the mother’s movement is not mistaken for that of the foetus, a separate sensor is positioned on her back and those signals are read separately.
“Mothers can feel about a third of the movements made by the unborn baby and can often detect a change in the movement patterns,” Dr Boashash said. “However, because this varies from baby to baby, and woman to woman, some changes in movement patterns may go undetected. Sadly, some babies die in the womb following a period of time of decreased movements. Essentially, the aim of this project is to infer, from recordings of the foetal movements, what the health of the foetus is and try to make a decision before it is too late.”
Dr Boashash explained that the technology allows for continuous monitoring of the foetus so that any unusual signal patterns will be instantly sent to the physician. This would eliminate the need for frequent visits to the doctor and would, at the same time, monitor the health of the baby more effectively.
The team is also working on newborn monitor systems that work on the same premise, whereby signals from an infant’s brainwaves are transferred into sensors placed in a ‘hat’ worn just after birth.
“It has electrodes that measure the electrical activity at the scalp, and the electrical activity on the scalp is directly related to the activity of the neurons inside the brain,” Dr. Boashash explained.
This technology again relies on a more sophisticated approach to the reading of signals, measuring their frequency and peaks, as well as the order of these peaks over time. As a result, a doctor may now be able to recognise that a baby is going through a seizure by examining the results provided by processing the signals in this way.
“We have shown that when a newborn has a seizure, there is a particular pattern when you look at frequency and peaks together,” he said. “You will not see that there is a problem without that pattern.”
According to Dr Boashash, the research is especially important in Qatar, where the privacy afforded by such technologies would encourage more families to use them. “Women here could benefit from the technology because they are less likely to want to go and show their tummy to a doctor,” he said.
Dr Boashash and his team have published their findings widely and are currently trialing the monitoring systems in Australia with the intention of testing them in the near future in Qatar.
QNRF funds this project through the National Priorities Research Program as part of its aim to develop a local culture to support research that will benefit Qatar, the region, and the world. QNRF is a member of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.