22.11.16

VR lets medics and parents meet 3D babies in the womb

3D model of unborn baby in womb
3D virtual model MRI view of foetus at 26 weeks | Credit: Radiological Society of North America

Virtual reality is providing parents and medical professionals with highly realistic models of foetuses in the womb. The development, to be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), could help diagnosis and treatment of problems as the child develops as well as allow parents a detailed and unique perspective of their unborn child.

The method - that saw researchers in Brazil create 3D VR models from MRI and ultrasound data - will be presented at the event held in Chicago, November 27 to December 2, 2016.

When an accurate 3D model of the womb, umbilical cord, placenta and foetus is created, a VR device can be programmed to incorporate the model.

Dr Heron Werner Jr. from the Clínica de Diagnóstico por Imagem, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said: "The 3D foetal models combined with virtual reality immersive technologies may improve our understanding of foetal anatomical characteristics and can be used for educational purposes and as a method for parents to visualise their unborn baby."

Researchers say that the models are “remarkably similar” to the postnatal appearance of the newborn baby. Furthermore, they recreate the entire internal structure of the foetus, including a detailed view of the respiratory tract, which can aid doctors in assessing abnormalities.

Dr Werner’s team used an Oculus Rift 2 headset to view the model and added heartbeat sounds from the ultrasound scan of the foetus. 

"The experience with the Oculus Rift has been wonderful," Dr Werner said. "It provides foetal images that are sharper and clearer than ultrasound and MR images viewed on a traditional display."

As well as assessing the foetal development, it is hoped that the technology will help co-ordinate care with multidisciplinary teams and provide better visual information to parents to help them understand malformations and treatment decisions.

"The physicians can have access to an immersive experience on the clinical case that they are working on, having the whole internal structure of the foetus in 3D in order to better visualise and share the morphological information," Dr Werner said. "We believe that these images will help facilitate a multidisciplinary discussion about some pathologies in addition to bringing a new experience for parents when following the development of their unborn child."

The researchers have used the technique on patients at a clinic in Rio de Janeiro, including cases where the foetus had evidence of an abnormality that required postnatal surgery. They hope to use the technology more broadly over the next year.

Co-authors on the study are Bianca Guedes Ribeiro, Jorge Lopes, Gerson Ribeiro, Pedro Daltro, Tatiana M. Fazecas, Renata A. Nogueira, and Leise Rodrigues.