A new wearable ultrasound patch could help detect cardiovascular problems earlier, and with greater precision.

The device—about the size of a fingernail—non-invasively monitors blood pressure in arteries deep beneath the skin.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego developed the patch for patients with lung or heart disease, as well as those who are critically ill or undergoing surgery.

The patch’s ultrasound technology could also be used to track other vital signs and physiological signals throughout the body.

“Wearable devices have so far been limited to sensing signals either on the surface of the skin or right beneath it. But this is like seeing just the tip of the iceberg,” according to study co-author Sheng Xu, a professor of nano-engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

“By integrating ultrasound technology into wearables, we can start to capture a whole lot of other signals, biological events and activities going on way below the surface in a non-invasive manner,” Xu said in a statement.

The team is making headway with this ultrasound patch, which can continuously monitor central blood pressure in major arteries more than one inch below the skin.

Central blood pressure—different than the peripheral blood pressure measured by an inflatable cuff on your arm—relates to central blood vessels, which pump vital fluid directly from the heart to other major organs.

When worn on the neck, the device records central blood pressure in the carotid artery, internal jugular vein, and external jugular vein (via Chonghe Wang/Nature Biomedical Engineering)

A central BP reading, experts say, is more accurate and better at predicting heart disease. But it’s not easy to calculate through routine exams (especially ones that don’t involve a catheter).

Which is why researchers at UC San Diego developed a convenient alternative—a soft, stretchy ultrasound path that can be work on the skin, and promises precise readings even while the user is moving.

“This has the potential to be a great addition to cardiovascular medicine,” co-author Brady Huang, a radiologist at UC San Diego Health, said. “In the operating room, especially in complex cardiopulmonary procedures, accurate real-time assessment of central blood pressure is needed—this is where this device has the potential to supplant traditional methods.”

Initial testing on a male subject—who wore the thin silicone elastomer patch, complete with tiny electronics, on the forearm, wrist, neck, and foot—provided promising results.

Don’t expect to see patients sporting the wearable any time soon, though. There are plenty of improvements to be done, including integrating a power source, data processing units, and wireless communication capability.

“If we want to move this from benchtop to bedside, we need to put all these components on board,” Xu said.

The full study was published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Early this year, scientists unveiled a wearable EKG sensor that monitors long-term health. Find out more about wearable devices here.

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