Virtual reality helps diagnose heart defects

Dutch doctors are using a virtual reality system to visualize the heart in three dimensions and detect if it is healthy or not. In a pilot study, ten doctors were able to move around virtual three-dimensional animated images or 'holograms' of the heart and to make correct diagnosis after a ten-minute training.

According to BioMed Central, Dutch doctors are using a virtual reality system to visualize the heart in three dimensions and detect if it is healthy or not. In a pilot study, ten doctors were able to move around virtual three-dimensional animated images or 'holograms' of the heart and to make correct diagnosis after a ten-minute training. However, the applicability of this technology in clinical practice is still limited largely because it is available in only a few research centers around the world. So don't expect your local doctor to perform a real time 3D echocardiography before a while.

This study has been conducted at the Erasmus Center for Bioinformatics, a department of the Erasmus Medical Center located at Rotterdam in the Netherlands. And this center was the first university medical center to install an I-Space virtual reality system from Barco for both clinical and research applications.

Below is a photograph of a 6-walled I-Space virtual reality system (image courtesy of Barco N.V.). The I-space installed at the Erasmus is a 4-walled system, without ceiling and sliding back wall.

A 6-walled I-Space virtual reality system

And on the picture below, bio-informatics scientist Anton Koning is mining the human genome in the I-Space reality environment (Credit: Barco N.V.). Here is a link to a larger version of this photo.

Mining the human genome in the I-Space

This research work has been accepted by Cardiovascular Ultrasound, an online journal published by BioMed Central under the name "Dynamic 3D echocardiography in virtual reality" (December 23, 2005). Here are two links to the abstract and the full paper as it appeared upon acceptance (PDF format, 16 pages, 603 KB). The top illustration above have been extracted from this document.

This paper also gives some more details about the background of the experiment.

This pilot study was performed to evaluate whether virtual reality is applicable for three-dimensional echocardiography and if three-dimensional echocardiographic `holograms` have the potential to become a clinically useful tool.

And here is a description of the method used by the researchers.

Three-dimensional echocardiographic data sets from 2 normal subjects and from 4 patients with a mitral valve pathological condition were included in the study. Ten independent observers assessed the 6 three-dimensional data sets [which were previously transferred inside the I-Space environment] with and without mitral valve pathology. After 10 minutes' instruction in the I-Space, all of the observers could use the virtual pointer that is necessary to create cut planes in the hologram

Finally, here is a short description of the results obtained.

The 10 independent observers correctly assessed the normal and pathological mitral valve in the holograms (analysis time approximately 10 minutes). In conclusion, this report shows that dynamic holographic imaging of three-dimensional echocardiographic data is feasible. However, the applicability and use-fullness of this technology in clinical practice is still limited.

For more information about the virtual reality system used at the Erasmus MC, here is a link to the I-Space description on the Barco web site. And here is a Barco press release announcing how its visualization techniques could support cancer research at Erasmus MC.

This technology is probably too expensive today to become widespread. But in a few years from now, it will probably be affordable by many medical structures.

Sources: BioMed Central news release, via EurekAlert!, December 22, 2005; and various web sites

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