Doctors can see heart in 3D with Virtual Reality and diagnose heart conditions

Rotterdam 24 December 2005Virtual reality that allows doctors to visualise the heart in three dimensions could help in the diagnosis of heart conditions. A pilot study published in the open access journal Cardiovascular Ultrasound reveals that doctors can diagnose heart conditions quickly and easily from virtual three-dimensional animated images or "holograms" of the heart. Three-dimensional (3D) holograms allow doctors to "dive" into the beating heart and see interior parts of the organ.


This study has been conducted at the Erasmus Center for Bioinformatics, a department of the Erasmus Medical Center located at Rotterdam in The Netherlands. This centre was the first university medical centre to install an I-Space virtual reality system from Barco for both clinical and research applications.

Annemien van den Bosch and colleagues, from Erasmus MC University Medical Center Rotterdam, projected ultrasound-generated 3D images of hearts (echocardiograms) in a specially designed four-walled room called the I-Space. In the I-Space, images are projected on three of the walls and the floor, which results in an animated hologram floating in space in front of the viewers. The viewers wear a pair of glasses with polarising lenses allowing them to see the hologram with depth.

Van den Bosch et al. asked ten heart specialists to analyse the holograms of patients with a heart defect that affects the shape of an inside part the heart, and of patients with a healthy heart. The doctors learnt how to use the equipment and were able to virtually "cut through" the heart to see inside, using a virtual pointer, within ten minutes. The ten doctors could all distinguish healthy from unhealthy hearts and make the correct diagnosis within only ten minutes.

"At the moment, I-Space technology is only available in a few dedicated research centres throughout the world", write the authors, and the combination of virtual reality and 3D echocardiography is uncommon. However, it has many potential applications and might lead to a better understanding of the anatomy of the heart.

This pilot study was performed to evaluate whether virtual reality is applicable for three-dimensional echocardiography and if three-dimensional echocardiographic "holograms" have the potential to become a clinically useful tool. Three-dimensional echocardiographic data sets from two normal subjects and from four patients with a mitral valve pathological condition were included in the study.

Ten independent observers assessed the six three-dimensional data sets, which were previously transferred inside the I-Space environment, with and without mitral valve pathology. After 10 minutes' instruction in the I-Space, all of the observers could use the virtual pointer that is necessary to create cut planes in the hologram.

The ten independent observers correctly assessed the normal and pathological mitral valve in the holograms using an analysis time of approximately 10 minutes. In conclusion, this report shows that dynamic holographic imaging of three-dimensional echocardiographic data is feasible. However, the applicability and usefulness of this technology in clinical practice is still limited. This technology is probably too expensive today to become widespread. But in a few years from now, it will probably be affordable by many medical structures.

This research work has been accepted by Cardiovascular Ultrasound, an on-line journal published by BioMed Central under the name "Dynamic 3D echocardiography in virtual reality" (December 23, 2005). The authors of the article are Annemien E. van den Bosch, Anton H.J. Koning, Folkert J. Meijboom, Jackie S. McGhie, Maarten L. Simoons, Peter J. van der Spek, and Ad J.J.C Bogers. BioMed Central is an independent on-line publishing house committed to providing open access to peer-reviewed biological and medical research. This commitment is based on the view that immediate free access to research and the ability to freely archive and reuse published information is essential to the rapid and efficient communication of science.

Leslie Versweyveld

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