A new technology emerging from the University of Nottingham in a study, is helping scientists to develop the first comprehensive model of a fully functioning fetal heart.
The abdominal fetal ECG device, designed originally by academics in the University's Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and on commercial sale throughout the world since 2008 through the University's spin-out company Monica Healthcare Ltd, has been used to observe living fetal hearts of babies in their mothers' wombs.
The collaborative study led by experts at The University of Leeds discovered that the walls of the human heart are a disorganised jumble of tissue until relatively late in pregnancy - with development much slower compared to other mammals.
"In this study the Monica device has been specifically deployed to observe the development of the fetal heart as it goes through gestation," he said.
The fetal heart monitor is a portable, non-invasive device which attaches to the mother's abdomen and measures the electrical activity from the heart of the baby inside her womb.
The device uses complex algorithms to correctly identify signals related to the fetal heart rate (FHR) using sensitive ECG-style electrodes. This method of using electrophysiological signals differs from current external monitoring devices that collect FHR and uterine activity data based on physical changes that may cause problems in data interpretation.
The monitor is simple to use, beltless, requires no wires to connect to the display or printer. There is also no need for the constant re-positioning of transducers, which is required with older technology and the mother is free to walk around if necessary.
As part of their study, the team from the University of Leeds used the device to administer a weekly fetal ECG recording from 18 weeks until just before delivery.
The data from this, alongside two different MRI scans from the hearts of dead fetuses, was incorporated into a 3D computerised model built up using information about the structure, shape and size of the different components of the heart.
Early results suggest that the human heart may develop on a different timeline from other mammals. While the tissue in the walls of a pig heart develops a highly organised structure at a relatively early stage of a fetus' development, their work suggests there is little organisation in the human heart's cells until 20 weeks into pregnancy.
The study has been published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface Focus.