Parents may soon be able to watch their unborn babies grow, thanks to technology that transforms MRI and ultrasound data into a 3-D virtual reality model of a fetus. The research was presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

An MRI provides high-resolution fetal and placental imaging with excellent contrast. It is generally used in fetal evaluation when an ultrasound cannot provide sufficiently high-quality images.

3-D virtual model MRI view of fetus at 26 weeks. Credit: Image courtesy of RSNA3-D virtual model MRI view of fetus at 26 weeks. Credit: Image courtesy of RSNAResearchers in Brazil created virtual reality 3-D models based on fetal MRI results. Sequentially-mounted MRI slices are used to begin construction of the model. A segmentation process follows in which the physician selects the body parts to be reconstructed in 3-D.

Once a 3-D model is created— including the womb, umbilical cord, placenta, and fetus— the virtual reality device can be programmed to incorporate the model.

The virtual reality fetal 3-D models are similar to the postnatal appearance of the newborn baby. They recreate the entire internal structure of the fetus, including a detailed view of the respiratory tract, which can aid doctors in assessing abnormalities.

For the virtual reality device, researchers used an Oculus Rift 2 headset. The device places the user in an immersive environment, complete with heartbeat sounds derived from the ultrasound of the fetus. Users can study the 3-D fetal anatomy by moving their head.

The technology's potential applications include assessment of fetal airway patency. Airway patency, or the state of airways being open and unblocked, is an important issue for a developing fetus.

For example, if an ultrasound showed an abnormal mass near the fetal airway, physicians could use the 3-D images and the headset to assess the entire length of the airway and make better informed decisions about delivery.

The technology also can help coordinate care and provide visual information to parents to help them understand possible malformations and treatment decisions.

The researchers have used the technique on patients at a clinic in Rio de Janeiro, including cases where the fetus had evidence of an abnormality that required postnatal surgery.

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