A new electronic sensor can remotely detect the beat of a human heart from up to 3 feet (1 meter away).
The sensor, developed by researchers at the University of Sussex Innovation Centre, can also detect brain waves from a tenth of an inch (3 millimeters) away from the skull. Researchers hope the technology, called an Electric Potential Sensor, can be used to monitor home healthcare patients remotely, without the need for doctor’s appointments or invasive tests. [Read " 7 High-Tech Helpers to Get Fit."]
“It’s a little bit like the old Star Trek technology, where they kind of wave something over your skin and take your heartbeat,” said Peter Lane, an innovation support advisor at the Sussex Innovation Centre.
Current medical monitoring usually requires bodily contact. To hear a heartbeat, you need a stethoscope. To measure the heart’s electrical activity, you need an electrocardiogram (ECG), which requires up to 12 sticky electrodes, special conductive gel, a trained technician, and depending on how much body hair one has a shave.
Same goes for an electroencephalogram (EEG), which uses electrodes attached to the scalp to measure electrical activity in the brain.
The Electric Potential Sensor is does away with all that. The coin-sized device uses an electrode to detect tiny variations in the body’s electric field. This signal is then amplified inside the circuit. The sensor can then send data over phone lines or an Internet connection to a far-away doctor or nurse.
The electric field change caused by a heartbeat is strong enough that the sensor can detect it from several feet away. For a detailed ECG or EEG, the sensor can be held in the hands or placed near the head. It could even be put in a wristband or watch to replace the large heart-rate monitors often used by runners today, Lane said.
The sensor is now being tested by U.K. company PassivSystems for use in monitoring elderly people in their homes, Lane said, but the technology works in other arenas as well. By measuring currents in materials like ceramics or metal, the sensors can detect invisible cracks, which means they could be used to monitor the structural integrity of bridges and dams.
The sensor’s ability to pick up on bioelectrical activity from afar might also make it useful for security and intelligence operatives, Lane said in other words, James Bond types. As it turns out, you don’t even need to be in the same room with the sensor for it to detect your electric field.
“Rather fascinatingly,” Lane said, “it can see through walls.”
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.