In a recent news article, the Northwestern Medicine Feinberg School of Medicine has shared details about an experimental device that may have the potential to dramatically improve the treatment of hydrocephalus, a condition that causes fluid to build up in the brain.
Hydrocephalus causes fluid to build up in the brain, which can put pressure on the brain and may damage it. Without treatment, the condition can become fatal. Hydrocephalus is often treated using a thin tube called a shunt that’s surgically implanted into the brain and then drains away excess fluid. However, according to the NHS, an estimated four out of ten shunts will malfunction within the first year. The shunts can develop problems, such as blockages and infections, and, according to Northwestern’s article, diagnosing a shunt failure can be extremely difficult. They write that relatively common symptoms of illness, such as headaches, low energy, and nausea, can all be signs of shunt failure. However, because of the serious implications of shunt failure patients who experience any of these signs often need to undergo expensive and time-consuming CT scans, MRIs, and sometimes even surgery.
A Potential New Option
The possibility of shunt failure can place a huge burden on patients, who always need to be prepared for a medical emergency. However, researchers at Northwestern have been developing a possible alternative device: a small wearable shunt monitor that can be easily tested to establish whether a shunt has failed or not. It uses a heat sensor to work out how much fluid is flowing through a patients shunt within five minutes, potentially allowing patients to avoid extensive and invasive testing.
Research into the Monitor
So far, the monitor is still in the fairly early stages of research. It has been tested in the lab, and also in a published pilot study of five patients that showed the monitor could clearly tell the difference between patients with working shunts and control locations. The researchers are keen to carry on developing the device, and the next step will be a larger paediatric study in Chicago.
One patient with hydrocephalus who could be helped is Willie, who is 26 and has already undergone 190 surgeries. His mother, Beth, says that the device has the potential to have a huge impact on the lives of patients by reducing the uncertainty around shunt failure. “The biggest part of hydrocephalus is the unpredictability”, she says, “not being able to know […] whether you’ll be in the emergency room or at home.”