Advances in medical imaging could miniaturize MRI-quality technology to the size of a wearable, says tech innovator and co-founder of Openwater Mary Lou Jepsen. While research still is in early exploratory R&D stages, Jepsen says the tech is available to generate diagnostic images in technology that fits inside a ski hat or a bandage. Using the same principles, Jepsen believes the technology could one day lead to her “moon shot” achievement — telepathic communication.
Jepsen’s expertise lies in a myriad of technologies — from physics and computer engineering to media arts and electrical engineering — and she has worked for GoogleX and Facebook. Now, she’s looking to get into healthcare technology with a start-up called Openwater, which launched last year and aims to make medical imaging more portable and affordable.
“My big bet is that we can use [existing] manufacturing infrastructure to create the functionality of a $5 million MRI machine in a consumer electronics price-point wearable,” said Jepsen in an interview with Xconomy last year. The implications of the technology, she said, could facilitate the early detection of neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, blood clots, and even thoughts traveling through the brain.
Jepsen told The Verge in a recent podcast at the SXSW technology conference that she has been incubating the idea since 2005, and part of her inspiration came from a UC Berkeley study that recorded MR brain scans of students watching YouTube Videos. The research, which has since been replicated, demonstrated that scientists could identify which video the student was watching based on oxygen flow in the brain.
“If I throw you in an MRI machine right now, I could tell you what words you’re about to say, what images are in your head, what music you’re listening to or even if you’re listening to me or not,” said Jepsen during the podcast.
The capabilities Jepsen is proposing are possible with currently available MR technology, but innovations are hindered by the size and expense of the equipment. Using liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and near infrared (NIR) light, researchers at Openwater seek to replicate MR-quality imaging that is much smaller and more affordable.
NIR light — which can render the body virtually translucent — is already used in pulse oximeters that clip to the ends of fingers, Jepsen explained to IEEE Spectrum, but broader applications are limited by the bones’ ability to scatter light. Jepsen already has filed patents on technology that measures the scattering and uses it to render an inverted holographic image — essentially using the scattering to further focus and improve imaging.
Potential applications for the technology include at-home medical imaging and continuous monitoring of the brain, which would allow doctors to see how patients respond to different therapies. Also, cheaper imaging could have a significant impact on value-based care, as high-resolution medical imaging — particularly of the brain — is one of the top expenditures in healthcare systems globally. A study in the Journal of the American College of Radiology estimates that 10.6 percent of the U.S. health budget is spent on medical imaging.