A Brazilian team has created virtual reality 3-D models of unborn babies combining magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound data.

Parents might soon be looking at their children’s detailed face before they are born, in the extraordinary images that seem to be more realistic than ever. The 3-D models will let physicians spot abnormalities to plan a future surgical intervention. The new technology will be presented next week at the Radiological Society of North America by the Brazilian researchers that created the innovative imaging method that involves virtual reality.

3D model of unborn baby
The results are very similar to the postnatal baby, allowing a more accurate diagnosis of abnormalities and a better preparation for the baby’s arrival. Image credit: Radiological Society of North America.

Combining MRI —which provides high resolution fetal and placental images— and ultrasound images, doctors can choose which part of the fetus they want to transform into a 3-D picture. 

In order to create the 3-D images, MRI slice pictures of the fetus are sequentially mounted. Once the process is done, the doctor selects the body parts they want to reconstruct into a three-dimensional image. The last step is to program a virtual reality device to incorporate the model, and ultimately, parents and doctors can use the model to have a close, realistic, virtual look of the unborn baby.  

The Brazilian team used the latest-generation Oculus Rift 2 headset to see what they created. The ultrasound lets users hear the heartbeat of the fetus while a single move of the headset will let you explore the baby’s anatomy.

The 3-D images include not only the baby but the womb, the umbilical cord, and the placenta. Even the internal structure of the fetus can be appreciated in the 3-D model, which gives physicians an incredible advantage to early diagnose malformations in the respiratory tract, just to name an example.

3-D images of the fetus are the future in education and prevention of pregnancy complications

The virtual reality imaging can help coordinate multidisciplinary teams to diagnose better the fetus and then develop more suitable plans on how to proceed in case of abnormalities. The images will also be useful when it comes to explaining parents what their unborn baby has or does not have.

“The physicians can have access to an immersive experience on the clinical case that they are working on, having the whole internal structure of the fetus in 3-D in order to better visualize and share the morphological information,” Dr. Heron Werner Jr., co-author of the study, M.D., Ph.D. from the Clínica de Diagnóstico por Imagem, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said. “We believe that these images will help facilitate a multidisciplinary discussion about some pathologies in addition to bringing a new experience for parents when following the development of their unborn child.”

Ultrasound cannot provide high-quality images, and when physicians fail to see what they are looking for to make sure the fetus is healthy, they use MRI, which produces fetal and placental imaging with excellent contrast. When you turn those high-resolution images into a 3-D model, the image provides more details than any other imaging method in the world without putting the baby’s life at risk. MRI and ultrasound are harmless to the fetus in contrast to tomographies. 

The new innovation has already being used in Rio de Janeiro. The Virtual Reality images have helped to diagnose fetal abnormalities that required postnatal surgery.

Source: Radiological Society of North America