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New Washable Heartbeat Sensor Means Medical Textiles Could Save Lives

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Textiles are venturing further into the health sector with a new development.

The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, also known as Empa, in conjunction with the research institute CSEM, Zurich University Hospital and Nottwil’s Swiss Paraplegic Center, created optic fibers for sensors that could be fully integrated in textiles, including hospital garments.

The textile sensor, which was presented in the Royal Society Interface Journal, could be produced industrially and is washable. With this innovation, textiles could potentially help doctors detect patients’ vital signs, including heartbeat, in the future.

Empa researchers produced the polymer optic fibers with a special melting technique. Due to the fibers’ flexible form, researchers were then able to use the fibers in a sensor sewn onto material. Researchers tested the textile sensor placed into a hat and could detect test subjects’ heart rates from their foreheads.

“Normally, you measure the pulse on thin parts of the body, such as a finger or earlobe,” said Empa postdoctoral researcher Maike Quandt. “By sending light through the tissue and measuring the light intensity that changes with the pulse as it returns to the detector, however, we can determine the heart rate.”

Unlike other textile sensors, Empa’s sensor could be used on any part of the body since it measures the reflection of light. When placed on bare skin, the sensor emits and detects light on the same side of the body.

Since Empa’s textile sensor can be efficiently sewn into textiles, researchers are also looking to use it to measure other body data in coming years.

“We validated it for the heart rate,” said head researcher Luciano Boesel. “But it would be possible to monitor oxygen saturation or metabolic products with it, too.”

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