Scanner uses radar to look inside body

May 17, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Emergency Medical Technicians will soon be testing a hand-held device right out of Star Trek. Instead of x-rays, it uses radar to examine the lungs. The technology even might have detected actress Natasha Richardson's brain injury before it was too late.

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Instead of looking at x-ray film, EMTs will look at a screen: a simple diagnosis for pneumothorax, a life-threatening traumatic injury.

"A pneumothorax is an air gap between the chest wall and the lung," explains John Chang. "The challenge in the field for field diagnosis of a life-threatening pneumothorax, is that you cannot determine it until the very end stage, when the person is about to die."

Chang works in search and rescue but also leads the group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that developed this miniature scanner. The most effective way to detect a pneumothorax has always been an x-ray. Their device uses radar.

During a recent demonstration, Lab Designer Pat Welch pointed the device at himself. The radar pulsed easily showing his breathing on the screen. The left half represented his chest and the right half represented his back. It is called Ultra-Wide-Band because it uses lots of frequencies, but only in short pulses. That enables it to use very low power. Innovative noise-cancelling technology makes it immune to interference. A large version is being tested to locate victims of building collapse or police suspects behind walls.

Large "horns" send and receive micro-impulses of radar that see through the walls and can even detect breathing on the other side of a wall. This could come in handy for search and rescue teams. In a smaller size, the same technology can look through the wall of the chest.

A company called Electrosonics is commercializing it as Pneumoscan. It directs the user to take snapshots at eight landmarks on the chest. In this way, the radar can not just confirm a pneumothorax, it can pinpoint its location.

In the future it could even display a 3D image of the injury.

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