“Doctors can now take a picture of the infant before it is born,” crowed a reporter in the Dallas Morning News in 1975. Little did the author know that by 2016, that relatively new sonogram would be replaced by 3D and even 4D ultrasounds—nearly ubiquitous keepsakes for parents-to-be. But a new technology may soon make the idea of a 4D ultrasound just as quaint as the 1975 article’s description of “the echo.” As Rebecca Robbins reports for STAT, researchers have now figured out how to create virtual reality images of fetuses that immerse doctors and parents inside their developing bodies.
The technology, which was invented by a group of Brazilian researchers and will be presented next week at the Radiological Society of North America's annual conference, uses Oculus Rift 2 to give viewers a look inside a model created with data from ultrasounds and MRIs. With the help of a 3D model created by sophisticated software and a VR headset, viewers can virtually venture inside the fetus’ body.
The technology recreates the entire structure of the fetus and offers a comprehensive view of the esophageal tract. Since the esophagus’ tissue is similar to other tissue around it, it’s relatively difficult to visualize with current technologies. As a result, before the baby is born, it’s hard for doctors to diagnose abnormalities like esophageal atresia, a birth defect in which the esophagus does not develop properly, which can lead to choking and difficulty eating.
Doctors hope the technology could one day allow them to detect abnormalities within developing fetuses. Robbins reports that the visualizations offer a “remarkable” view of things like tumors and cleft lips that could not necessarily be spotted using traditional viewing techniques. However, says Robbins, the extra tissue in pregnant women’s bodies could impede the accuracy of the MRIs and make it harder to visualize everything inside the fetus.
According to a press release from the Radiological Society of North America, the doctors operated on one of the 30 fetuses they visualized in Brazil when they spotted an abnormality that required postnatal surgery. Heron Werner, who co-authored the study, says that access to the VR models could help doctors better coordinate care and serve as a “new experience” for parents.
Will VR fetuses ever catch on? The jury is still out. Since the technology is so new, it will likely be extremely expensive to start and will probably only be available for high-risk pregnancies before it becomes widely used. The technology has only been tested in 30 pregnant women thus far, so more trials and research is necessary before it goes mainstream. Who knows—VR goggles may some day replace adorable sonograms for parents-to-be. But the real test of the technology will be not in how many proud parents it pleases, but in how many lives it manages to save.