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A new technique—electromyometrial imaging—can display a color-coded, three-dimensional picture of uterine contractions, potentially giving clues to early births.

The new approach, developed by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Researchers say the importance of the technique is that the 3D pictures may help physicians identify contractions that could lead to an early birth. Further, it’s possible that, over time, doctors may be able to identify and prevent preterm labor.

A team of scientists, led by Yong Wang, used the technology, known by the acronym of EMMI, on sheep, to show that it can reconstruct uterine electrical activation patterns from electrodes placed on the abdomen. The studies suggest that the technique could be safely used on humans.

The new tool is based on a cardiac-imaging method developed by Yoram Rudy, a biomedical engineering researcher at the university. Called electrocardiographic imaging, or ECGI, the technique uses hundreds of body-surface electrodes to collect the heart’s electrical signals and, with a mathematical algorithm, projects them onto a 3D image created from a computed tomography scan of the heart. Wang’s study suggests it also can be used on the uterus.

The resulting 3D color-coded images and movies could help researchers identify “uterine pacemaker” sites where contractions begin, and better understand the velocity, direction and coordination of uterine contractions that contribute to early birth.

These new techniques also could help physicians study the heart, says Kelle H. Moley, MD, chief scientific officer at the March of Dimes, which is funding the research.

“Even without touching the heart, doctors can determine where each beat comes from, the direction in which it moves, how fast it moves, and much more,” Moley explains.

“There are medications and interventions, such as ablation, that are commonly used to deal with heartbeats that are too slow or too fast. EMMI is new way to study the pregnant uterus in a similar fashion, and we hope it will lead to the development of similar types of drugs and treatments to stop contractions that lead to preterm labor.”

In an article published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers further explained their work.

“Modeling experiments showed that EMMI reconstructions are minimally affected by noise and geometrical deformation. Our results indicate that EMMI can noninvasively, safely, accurately, robustly and feasibly image three-dimensional uterine electrical activation during contractions in sheep and suggest that similar results might be obtained in clinical setting.”


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