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Heart problems could soon be detected with a webcam, claim scientists


Lifesaving heart tests could one day be carried out at home using just a webcam, thanks to a new procedure which can detect a cardiac condition simply by scanning a face.

The new scanning technology, developed by Xerox alongside medics and engineers at the University of Rochester in the USA, can pick up disruptions to the heart’s rhythm by subtle changes in skin colour invisible to the naked eye.

It is hoped that the technology could improve diagnosis rates for atrial fibrillation (AF), a common disorder that affects nearly a million people in the UK.

So far the test has only been put through its paces in proof of concept studies involving a small number of patients, but there are plans to expand trials, with a view to refining the technology so that tests could one day be carried out by patients using their computers’ webcams at home.

The technology works by analysing how light is reflected and absorbed by blood in the thin skin of the face. Like a digital camera, the scanner records three basic colours: red, green and blue. Haemoglobin, a component of blood, absorbs more green light and this subtle change can be spotted by the scanner’s sensors, the researchers said.

Colour changes detected in videos of the scans corresponded with the patient’s heart rate, which were recorded on a normal echocardiogram (ECG).

AF is characterised by an unusually fast or irregular heart beat caused by abnormal electrical impulses in the heart muscle. The study team said that this irregular electrical activity could be identified by observing the green light reflected and absorbed by blood in the face.

“This technology holds the potential to identify and diagnose cardiac disease using contactless video monitoring,” said Dr Jean-Philippe Couderc, a biomedical engineer with the University of Rochester’s Heart Research Follow-up Program. “This is a very simple concept, but one that could enable more people with atrial fibrillation to get the care the care they need.”

The study is published in the journal Heart Rhythm.

AF affects up to 800,000 people in the UK but often goes undiagnosed because the symptoms are mild.

However, it can lead to an increased risk of stroke and often requires treatment – either with drugs, a pacemaker, or controlled electric shocks to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. 

The new technology is in a very early stage of development, and only 11 patients have been tested so far, but researchers said that the success rate of the test was similar to that the of the existing ECG test.

Christopher Allen, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “The biggest concern with atrial fibrillation is that it greatly increases the risk of having a stroke.

“The most common ways to detect AF are a manual pulse check and an ECG, but sometimes this doesn’t always pick up the abnormal rhythm.

“This small study looks at a potential new way to detect AF. However further and much larger studies are needed to confirm any findings or conclusions. If you’re concerned you might have an abnormal heart rhythm, make an appointment to see your GP.”