It’s All In the Numbers: Imaging Technology Research and Cystic Fibrosis

Melody Alsaker is a researcher at Gonzaga with a passion for math. Not just any math though. The numbers and concepts Alsaker works with could be the kind that develops the next major diagnostic technology. Her current work shows how this technology may be used to help children with cystic fibrosis in a partnership with a Colorado children’s hospital. Keep reading to learn more, or follow the original story an

Medical professionals rely on a variety of tests to diagnose diseases. Some of the most common include the computer tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an X-ray, and ultrasound. These are all leaps and bounds ahead of exploratory surgery in terms of risk and patient comfort. They do, however, come with a very large price tag. Furthermore, patients must be exposed to radiation to conduct these tests.

Alsaker, an assistant professor of mathematics at Gonzaga University is working on what’s known as electrical impedance tomography (EIT).

EIT works through a series of electrodes placed on the patient’s body. The electrodes emit small amounts of electrical current. When the electrodes are arranged properly, it allows the device to test the electrical conductivity of specific regions of the body. Computers, using complex mathematical equations, are able to turn that feedback into an image. As an example, Alsaker notes that blood is highly conductive. Air, which is found in the lungs, is not.

The EIT has two major advantages over the current generation of imaging technologies. First of all it is vastly cheaper than the machines used in MRI, X-ray, CT scan, or ultrasound. The other major advantage is that it is much more compact. There’s ways for it to be used on helicopters, ambulances, and at bedsides.

In the case of cystic fibrosis, Alsaker’s research is already being used with children in Colorado. She says that the EIT does a great job of capturing a large number of images very quickly. Researchers can then stitch these images together to make what is basically a video. This allows researchers to view air entering the lungs in real time. This means the EIT has potential to replace regular CT scans cystic fibrosis patients often face, and possible other tests used to measure lung volume.

Alsaker does, however, acknowledge that there is still plenty of road to travel on this technology.

Because of the way the EIT handles information, it is currently not able to produce images with the same resolution as the more common medical scanners. Also because the math supporting the device “doesn’t have a very stable solution,” it is possible for sizable errors to creep in unexpectedly. Alsaker describes part of the success of MRI and CT scans as just being “mathematically easier to process.” The challenge, and potential, however, of EIT is one of the reasons researchers like Alsaker continue to work and improve upon it.

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