Hey, You Just Swallowed a Camera!

From the WebMD Archives

May 24, 2000 -- With all the hype about the marvels of wireless communications, here's news of wireless technology that isn't too hard to swallow. Researchers from the UK and Israel have developed a vitamin pill-sized, wireless video camera that can be swallowed and will transmit high-quality images of the insides of the stomach and intestines as its makes its journey from the mouth to parts beyond. The technology is described in the May 25 issue of the journal Nature.

When patients are having stomach or bowel problems, they must often undergo uncomfortable imaging procedures for their doctors to determine the cause of the problem. Standard techniques for getting good video images of the stomach or bowels involve a flexible tube carrying a light and a miniature camera on its tip that is passed down through the throat (gastroscopy, for viewing the stomach) or up through the rectum (colonoscopy, for viewing the large bowel, or endoscopy, for viewing the small bowel).

But because of the twists and turns in the digestive tract, it is often hard for doctors to snake the tubes around bends, and they frequently have to puff in jets of air to help the camera get through narrow passages. The procedure causes so much discomfort that it is usually performed with the patient under sedation or anesthesia.

In contrast, healthy human volunteers had no trouble swallowing the so-called wireless endoscopy capsules and did not experience any stomach problems, the researchers report. The capsules, which are pushed along through the stomach and intestines by the same mechanism that transports food, transmitted high-quality video images for up to six hours from the stomach, small bowel, and cecum (a pouch located in the colon). The camera passed through the stomach in an average of 80 minutes and through the small bowel in about 90 minutes, and was out of the body in 10 to 48 hours.

The new device, if approved by the FDA, promises to free many patients from the discomfort and limitations of small-bowel imaging, and to allow them to continue daily activities while the camera works its way through the system, possibly eliminating the need for traditional stomach- and bowel-imaging techniques, say Paul Swain, PhD, and colleagues from the Royal London Hospital and Given Imaging Ltd. in Yoqneam, Israel.

As it moves down through the stomach, intestines, and bowel, the camera sends out video signals in the UHF-band. The signals are detected by antennas that are taped to the body, and stored on portable recorders, which are capable of recording for more than five hours, the researchers say.

"The device has a 140 degree lens which is behind a dome-shaped window. The gut squeezes down and will open and close in on it, and we've designed the lens to have a very short focal length so that the image will be in focus even when the gut is actually touching the window," says Swain, a gastroenterologist at the Royal London Hospital, in an interview with WebMD.

The device, called "gulpable minicam," was made possible by technical advances in the areas of image sensors, integrated circuits, and light-emitting diodes that emit white light with low energy requirements. It joins a host of other devices that are already on the market or in the late phases of testing. These devices, some of which can be swallowed and others of which are worn on the body, can be used to remotely monitor vital signs, such as blood pressure, respiration rate, and oxygen levels. The devices are being tested by the U.S. military, NASA, and elite athletes, including marathon runners.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers have developed a vitamin pill-sized wireless video camera that can be swallowed to take images of the inside of the stomach, intestines, and bowel.
  • Other techniques for getting images of the stomach or bowels cause discomfort and usually require sedation or anesthesia.
  • This wireless camera, however, does not cause any problems in healthy volunteers, and takes six hours of video images while a person continues normal, daily activities.
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