By Isabel Ovalle
Several complications can occur during pregnancy, causing abnormalities in children that can be avoided with early diagnosis and treatment. To identify and prevent such problems, a team at Qatar University, led by Dr Boualem Boashash, is working to improve the monitoring of unborn babies during pregnancy.
Professor Boashash, an engineer, was engaged in military research on radar and sonar systems until 1992. More than two decades ago, he felt it was time for a change and decided to invest his time and knowledge in medical projects.
At that time he was living in Queensland, Australia. He realised there was much that could be done to better assess the likelihood and severity of problems newborns could face at birth, especially strangulation by the umbilical cord, which can impact the brain in different ways and cause seizures.
“I realised that, from engineering point of view, I had dealt with similar issues in the military and used methods applied in radar, sonar and communications,” he said.
To research the application of those techniques in obstetrics, with the help of Qatar Foundation, he moved to Qatar three and a half years ago. 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, Boashash is working under Qatar National Research Fund’s National Priorities Research Programme to find out how to best use those techniques for monitoring foetal health.
The professor explained: “There are two major variables in a signal — time and frequency. We are going to use these two variables concurrently. In the past, either time-delineated or frequency information was used, but not the two combined. That was like trying to represent a person by just looking at the height while the person’s weight and other factors were ignored.”
The research team has developed a sensor that is to be placed on the mother’s belly for a few hours a day. The device, instead of isolating frequency from time, uses an integrated approach to signal analysis to extract more information about the movements of the unborn child.
The signals can be studied to detect any abnormalities in the development of the foetus. The mother must wear a separate sensor on her back for better monitoring of signals from the fetus. Mothers can feel only a third of the unborn baby’s movements, Boashash noted.
With this technology, the unborn baby can be almost continuously monitored, so any abnormality will be noticed by doctors. The fetus’s heart is also monitored to look out for any variability in the heart rate.
The device is not yet available in all hospitals, but Boashash is working with physicians at Hamad General Hospital and hopes the technology will be available to the general population in 18 to 24 months.
A monitoring system for newborns is also being developed. The baby must wear a hat that records signals from its brainwaves and transfers them to a device. This technology will also be available in approximately 18 months.
Boashash added: “A number of electrodes measure electrical activity at the scalp, which is directly related to the activity of neurons in the brain.”
“The earlier the treatment is given to the baby, the better, because if the abnormality is not detected early, the brain will suffer,” he said.
Boashash added that some people suffered from the effects of complications during birth later in life, and these techniques could improve the quality of life of the newborn.
“The hat-like device can detect asymmetries in the brain, which can be detected if both parts of the brain are not working in the same way and there’s no balance.” These devices must be approved by the authorities concerned before they are made available for wider use.The Peninsula