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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Worried your muscles are shrinking faster than they should be over the years? Ohio State University researchers have created the first wearable health sensor designed to identify and monitor muscle atrophy, changing the game for adults with the condition.

Muscle atrophy describes the loss or wasting of muscle strength and mass, and typically stems from aging or disuse of muscles. Currently, doctors rely on MRI to assess if a patient has lost muscle size and volume. Doing this frequently can be impractical and costly, but the sensor could make things a whole lot easier.

“Ideally, our proposed sensor could be used by health care providers to more personally implement treatment plans for patients and to create less of a burden on the patient themselves,” says Allyanna Rice, lead author of the study and a graduate fellow in electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University, in a university release.

To test their work, the team developed 3D-printed limb molds and filled them with ground beef to simulate the calf tissue of an average-sized individual. The sensor successfully measured small-scale volume changes in limb size, and was able to track muscle loss of up to 51%.

Man lifting dumbbell weights at the gym
(Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Images)

Muscle atrophy sensor could be key for future space travel

This project expands upon Rice’s previous work in creating health sensors for NASA. The agency is continuously looking for ways to monitor the health of astronauts, because spending a lot of time in space can really harm the body. Researchers have worked for decades to come up with a solution, and so Rice was inspired by this goal.

“Our sensor is something that an astronaut on a long mission or a patient at home could use to keep track of their health without the help of a medical professional,” Rice adds.

But developing a wearable health sensor that conveniently tracks muscle deterioration sounds easier than it actually is. Rice and co-author Asiminia Kiourti, a professor in electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State, brought the device to life by using two coils, one for transmitting and one for receiving. They also used a conductor made out of e-threads to run them along the fabric in a zig-zag pattern, which was found to be most ideal for scaling the sensor across different body parts and limb sizes.

At first, Rice was concerned with coming up with a pattern that would fit a wide variety of people and adapt to their bodily changes over time. Now, the final product looks like a blood pressure cuff.

“When we first proposed the sensor, we didn’t realize that we would need a stretchable material until we realized that the person’s limbs were going to be changing,” she explains. “We need a sensor that can change and flex, but it also needs to be conformal.”

Even though development has ways to go before the product can be commercialized, the next step is connecting the sensor to a mobile app that can be used to store and deliver health information right to providers, making the process that much easier for patients. And for patients on both Earth and space, Rice looks ahead to combining the product with other devices that monitor health issues too, like ones for detecting bone loss.

The findings are published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering.

About Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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