Public Release: 

ORNL Work For Army Could Save Lives At Home

DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. -- Technology being developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to save lives on the battlefield and in hospitals closer to home could one day be used in baby cribs to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Researchers in the Department of Energy facility are using proprietary signal processing techniques to help doctors diagnose and anticipate a variety of conditions that affect lungs. Their immediate goal is to develop better ways to non-invasively monitor lungs and interpret and anticipate abnormalities.

"We're focusing our efforts on the lungs first, but we expect this work to have several other applications," said ORNL's Glenn Allgood. "As part of our first phase, we're developing models of normal lungs as well as those with conditions such as asthma and cystic fibrosis."

Allgood is concentrating on isolating the acoustic signals characteristic of each lung condition and developing a system that will help doctors more quickly recognize and treat a number of conditions before they get worse. Over the last few months, researchers have characterized 29 sets of data that represent an equal number of lung conditions. That data was supplied by the sponsor, Walter Reed Army Institute Research in Washington, D.C., which is specifically interested in ways to improve care for injured soldiers.

"Our Army medics and physicians have an enormous problem in accurately diagnosing certain conditions, such as pneumothorax, a life-threatening condition affecting the lungs," said Frederick J. Pearce, acting director of Walter Reed's Division of Surgery. "This condition is extremely difficult to diagnose in the field, where environmental noise and vibration interfere with the care-giver's ability to hear breath sounds -- or anything else for that matter.

"Our goal in working with ORNL is to develop a computerized listening device that is able to make the diagnosis automatically, allowing the caregiver to react immediately to treat the condition."

ORNL's work could lead to sensors embedded in an infant's mattress. These sensors could detect when an infant stops breathing or pick up other vital signs from the infant.

Admittedly, the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome application is several years away, but Allgood and others are hopeful it could help curb the as yet unexplained condition that claims the lives of 6,000 to 7,000 infants annually.

In the meantime, ORNL is using its unique and diverse capabilities to develop a physiological monitoring device using an optical-acoustic laser device as a sensor. This coupled with models of normal and abnormal lungs will provide doctors with the clear picture necessary to develop treatment strategies for a patient.

"What we're doing is going beyond the classical systems and providing physicians with a new way of looking at this data," said Allgood, a member of the laboratory's Instrumentation and Controls Division.

That new way of viewing data is made possible by a sophisticated signal processing system called higher order spectral analysis that makes it possible to separate signals from the patient from background signals. The system relies heavily on ORNL-developed algorithms, which are mathematical formulas for solving complex problems. Although doctors at Walter Reed are primarily interested in getting that information from wounded soldiers in the field and aboard noisy helicopters, the benefits closer to home are obvious. For example, Allgood and Pearce believe this system could lead to advanced monitoring of patients on the operating table, where surgeons need accurate information instantaneously.

"We believe that this kind of selective, supersonic hearing may offer solutions to many other diagnostic problems," Pearce said. "We are excited about this new teaming relationship between DOE and DOD labs, which is allowing us to apply state-of-the-art engineering expertise to tough medical problems."

The next phase is clinical trials necessary to gain Food and Drug Administration approval. That work may be done by the University of Utah's Ken Johnson, who is excited about working with ORNL and Walter Reed.

"We look forward to a fruitful exchange between specialists in advanced signal analysis from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and clinicians and biomedical engineers from the University of Utah and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research," Johnson said. "We're hopeful that with the development of a small, inexpensive respiratory monitor, we may make an impact on mortality associated with respiratory failure that even today continues to plague us."


ORNL, a multiprogram research facility, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.

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