Muscle atrophy, a condition characterized by loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength, is common among patients with degenerative diseases, those who are aging, and those who experience muscle disuse. Currently, physicians rely on MRI to assess muscle deterioration, which is time-consuming and expensive for patients. Researchers at The Ohio State University have developed a wearable sensor that can detect and monitor muscle atrophy without an MRI.

The study published in IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering suggests that an electromagnetic sensor made from conductive “e-threads” can be an alternative solution for frequent MRI monitoring. The researchers validated their work by creating 3D-printed limb molds and filling them with ground beef to mimic calf tissue of an average-sized human subject. Their findings revealed that the sensor was effective in measuring small-scale volume changes in overall limb size and could monitor muscle loss of up to 51%.

The sensor can be used by healthcare providers to implement personalized treatment plans, reducing the burden on patients. The wearable sensor is a continuation of lead author’s prior work in creating health sensors for NASA. Due to the adverse effects on the human body of spending long periods in space, NASA is keen on monitoring astronauts’ health. The sensor could be used by astronauts during extended space missions or by patients at home to monitor their health without the assistance of a medical professional. 

The gadget employs a pair of coils, with one functioning as a transmitter and the other as a receiver, and a conductor created from e-threads that traverse the fabric in a unique zigzag arrangement. The zig-zag pattern makes the sensor scalable across different body parts and locations.

The implementation of the wearable device is still years away, but the study indicates that the next significant advancement would probably involve linking the device to a mobile application that can capture and transmit health information directly to healthcare professionals. The researchers also plan to integrate more sensors and capabilities into the wearable, including a tool for detecting bone loss.