Enter the maze

Back (page) to full health

a doctor wearing a surgical mask

We are all living longer, and behind the amazing feats of medical science are an army of computer scientists helping to make it possible. The doctor will see you now as we explore the computer science behind medical marvels.

Designed to get you going

People do a lot of walking and running throughout their lives, and as we live longer our joints can wear out. Particularly in the hips and knees, disease, gravity and friction cause the normally smooth surfaces in the joint to deteriorate. This causes a great deal of pain and a loss of mobility. These days we can replace failed joints fairly easily using surgical procedures. Surgeons exchange knackered joints with artificial ones made from new types of clever bio-compatible materials (in the past joints were sometimes made using sculptured ivory). Computer scientists and medics have created computer-aided design and manufacturing techniques that use information from X-ray scans. A precise scan makes sure the fit of a new artificial joint is as close as possible to the shape of the joint it is replacing, in effect building a custom body part replacement.

Diagnosis: a step up to help stepping out

Sounds like a good idea

Being able to see what’s happening inside the human body without cutting it open sounds like a good idea, and sound allows us to do this. Ultrasound, a particularly high frequency noise, can be generated by vibrating a special probe in contact with the body. These sound waves penetrate the body and are reflected from internal organs. The echoes are detected in much the same way as a bat’s sonar works. With the help of clever software it’s possible to take the ultrasound echoes and create accurate 3D models of what’s happening inside the body. We can safely take pictures of babies in the womb, and odd lumps and bumps on organs. In addition, the Doppler effect, which changes the pitch of a sound as its source moves, allows us to be able to measure the speed of blood flow in the chambers of the heart.

Diagnosis: on reflection, sound can be good for your health

Sick of tweeting

Twitter, the popular social media platform, lets people tell the world what they are up to, from buying beans in the supermarket to feeling a bit ill. Computer scientists are working to develop ways to extract key words from tweets that indicate the onset of particular diseases, so that preparations can be made to treat them. While still in its early days this way of crowdsourcing information on the spread of disease, even at early stages, could prove useful in the future.

Diagnosis: saying you’re sick doesn’t make you a tweet

New tips for surgeons

Researchers have developed new ‘stretchy’ wearable electronic sensors that may find their way onto surgeons’ gloves. Using nanotechnology techniques they have been able to create ultra-thin electronics that can be cut into strips and attached to a rubbery layer, making it possible for them to stretch and bend round curvy things like fingertips without breaking. They plan to build these into surgical gloves, opening the possibility of enhancing surgeons' fingertips. Future surgeons could detect accurate temperatures, electrical activity and even to use their fingers to cut human tissue with a touch.

Diagnosis: new healing hands that fit like a glove