When you fly up the fetus’s nostril, you traverse cavernous tunnels that twist and turn, their pink walls lined with otherworldly ridges and bumps. All around you is the steady drumbeat of a beating heart.
To get there? Just strap on an Oculus Rift 2 headset.
Brazilian researchers have devised a way to immerse parents in virtual reality visualizations of their unborn babies, though the most vivid visuals will likely be reserved for a tiny fraction of pregnancies in which doctors suspect health problems. The technology has been tested in about 30 pregnancies at a Rio de Janeiro clinic but has not yet been peer-reviewed; it will be presented next week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
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The technology could inform fetal medical care — and it has commercial potential as a novelty for expectant parents.
But it may be an expensive novelty indeed. And it’s not clear how many parents would pay for a virtual reality slide down their fetus’s esophagus — or how useful that would be for doctors making medical decisions.
The Brazilian technology draws on two types of medical imaging data, traditional ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Software splices images from the scans and turns them into three-dimensional models, which are then transformed into virtual reality environments. They’re a step beyond the 3-D and 4-D ultrasounds that have become increasingly popular among expectant parents with the means to buy a fancy scan for a souvenir. (For medical purposes, most doctors rely on traditional two-dimensional ultrasounds.)
The most vivid new visualizations come from MRI, which is expensive and only ordered in a tiny fraction of pregnancies, usually when doctors are concerned about a possible health issue.
A small body of literature suggests that the test is safe during pregnancy. But doctors are unlikely to recommend it for women who have no medical need.
The visualizations from ultrasound alone are much less sharp, but they’re still captivating — and could portend a future where some expectant parents strap on a headset and enter virtual reality at a prenatal checkup instead of cooing at an image on a grainy screen.
In fact, lead researcher Dr. Heron Werner Jr. said he and his team are in discussions about licensing the technology to a large US medical imaging company, which he declined to name.
Werner, an OB/GYN specializing in fetal medicine at Rio’s Clínica de Diagnóstico Por Imagem, said the technology’s greatest potential lies in helping guide medical decisions for fetuses with potential health problems.
He said the visualizations did a remarkable job capturing abnormalities like cleft lips, tumors, and hernias in utero — though his research team did not use an empirical method to compare the prenatal scans with the babies’ appearances after birth.
Dr. Joshua Copel, a Yale OB/GYN who practices maternal-fetal medicine and was not involved in the research, called the MRI-fueled visualizations “really eye-opening.” But he said more study is necessary to determine the specific fetal abnormalities where the technology could best be deployed.
“What we don’t want is for people to say, ‘We’re going to do this for every fetal anomaly.’ It’s not going to be helpful for some,” Copel said. “The key to using this imaging wisely will be to figure out … when it has an impact on either fetal or neonatal care to know the information before birth, as opposed to getting it after birth.”
It also might not work as well for some women, Copel said. The US population has a higher average body mass index than that of Brazil, and extra tissue in a pregnant woman makes it harder to generate clear MRI data, which could result in less useful visualizations.
Werner said that so far, it seems pregnant women need to stay in the MRI machine for no more than 15 minutes to get good enough data to generate the visualizations. He and his team plan to test the technology in more pregnancies before seeking to publish their results in a scientific journal.
The research from Brazil is just the latest in a headlong rush among academics and companies to apply virtual reality to medicine. Researchers around the world are deploying the technology to test medical devices, diagnose pedophilia, help young people with autism learn to drive, and distract patients from the sting of a vaccination.
Medical imaging in particular is becoming a fertile field for experimenting with virtual reality. A Silicon Valley startup’s virtual reality technology, for instance, has been tested to plan surgeries in babies born without pulmonary arteries.