Doctors and scientists at a Liverpool hospital are using high-tech monitoring systems in an attempt to give the tiniest and most vulnerable premature babies a better chance of life.
Specialists in the neonatal intensive care unit at Liverpool Women's Hospital, which cares for babies born as early as 23 weeks, have teamed up with Liverpool University's department of electrical engineering and electronics in using sensitive television cameras to monitor the smallest changes in the colour of babies.
An automated camera, positioned above an incubator, will allow doctors to monitor a baby's skin colour which, they hope, will tell them about the oxygen levels of the blood and about changes in tissue pigmentation. It may eventually lead to the elimination of invasive monitoring wires and the need for regular blood tests. It may even be possible for the baby to be removed from the incubator.
According to Michael Weindling, professor of prenatal medicine at Liverpool University, minute changes in babies' colour can tell doctors much about their progress. Whiteness suggests anaemia, blueness deoxygenated blood, while yellowness points to jaundice and the breakdown of haemoglobin.
The cameras, adapted at the university to enable scientists to draw raw data on colour hue, intensity and saturation, should be able to pick up even the slightest changes in the colour spectrum. Changes in the wavelength of light of 0.01 of a nanometre are detectable - this, when the wavelength of blue light is 500 namometres.
The scientists are also developing heat-sensitive pads that change colour with the baby's temperature. These could be worn by the child, enabling temperature to be monitored without removing the child from the incubator.
Light-emitting sensors, which change colour depending on weight, are also being developed. These could be fitted to a plastic cushion that the child could lie on. The colour of each of the sensors would be monitored from a single camera.
"We are using simple instruments to get at difficult information," explains Gordon Jones, professor of electrical engineering and director of the centre for intelligent monitoring systems at Liverpool University. The system, which has been under development for the past year, is now being tested for reliability.