In this study, which is being conducted by researchers from the University of Birmingham, a large number of reflective stickers are placed on a patient’s chest.  Infrared lights are shone on the stickers and the reflections form a real-time 3D image of the patient’s chest and breathing movements on a computer screen.  

Dr Babu Naidu and Dr Nicola Oswald from the University of Birmingham are using this breathing monitoring technology on consenting patients at Heartlands Hospital.   It’s known as Opto Electronic Plethysmography (OEP) and was developed by Professor Andrea Aliverti from the Department of Bioengineering, Politechnico di Milano, Italy.  


Dr Oswald, a Research Fellow in the thoracic surgical team said:  “In some respiratory conditions the movement of the chest is not ‘normal’.  In a healthy person the chest wall moves out when they breathe in; and on exhaling the rib cage and stomach move evenly to ensure air is expelled.  When things go wrong this movement can go out of sync.  The OEP technology allows us to see specifically where, and how, breathing is being affected and can detect very subtle changes”. 

This study will be featured in the BBC programme ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor’ due to be aired in January 2017.  It will feature a patient who contracted an infection in their bloodstream and destroyed their breastbone. To stop the infection spreading the breastbone was removed, but this subsequently impacted breathing.  Before corrective surgery to implant a 3D-printed prosthesis breastbone, the OEP system showed that the patient’s exhalation was extremely slow and out of sync.  Post-surgery the OEP system showed the patient’s breathing had been corrected and their ability to exhale had returned to normal.

Dr Oswald added:  “Recording breathing movements provides completely new information that is not assessed with traditional tests.  The results could help decide whether treatments are effective or need modification.  This has huge implications as it is advancing our understanding of how the respiratory system works in real time which could ultimately have a significant impact on patient quality of life. 

Further studies are required but a simpler portable device to assess breathing movements could help reduce pressure on radiology departments doing CT scans to diagnose and monitor chest diseases.  Assessing breathing movements involves no radiation or injections for the patient and could be done at local clinics with the portable device.”