Device offers deeper, better view into ear, developers say

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Most people have had their ears examined using an otoscope, the primary tool doctors use when checking the ear for infections or other medical conditions, but the long-standard tool has its limits and often leaves some measure of diagnosis to guesswork.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have designed a new version of the otoscope using infrared light to see farther into the ear, beyond the ear drum, with the hope of making ear infection diagnosis more reliable.

Traditional otoscopes use visible light, giving doctors a view a few millimeters into the ear. While this is useful, they often do not reveal fluid behind the ear drum indicative of an infection, leaving doctors to guess based on what they can see and other symptoms described by patients.

Although researchers say there is specialized equipment that can help doctors make more reliable diagnoses, it is expensive and often requires additional training — which their new device does not.

“The potential impact of this work is huge,” Karina Cañadas, an assistant professor of pediatric otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine and was not involved in developing the new device, said in a press release. “Ear infections are one of the most common reasons for visits to the pediatrician, but sometimes the view of the middle ear in a wiggly irritated child is not easy, making a good exam not always possible. With this technology even a brief exam would be able to detect middle ear fluid more confidently.”

The new device, described in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses shortwave infrared light, offering a deeper view and rending the eardrum “transparent” to the device, making it clear whether fluid is present behind it.

Researchers tested the technology, which is based on the same type of imaging system used in self-driving cars to see through fog and in the dark, on 10 adults, finding it was reliable for diagnosis.

The device will be tested with pediatric patients — the vast majority of patients with ear infections, as most have had one by the age of 3 — before researchers look to commercialize and market it for use.

With more than 8 million diagnoses of ear infections per year, roughly half of which are incorrect and lead to unnecessary treatment with antibiotics, the potential for a tool to help more accurately judge the condition is huge.

“A lot of times, it’s a fifty-fifty guess as to whether there is fluid there,” said Jessica Carr, a graduate student involved with development of MIT’s new device. “If there’s no fluid, there’s no chance of an infection. One of the limitations of the existing technology is that you can’t see through the eardrum, so you can’t easily see the fluid. But the eardrum basically becomes transparent to our device.”
By Stephen Feller