CLOSE

6 Remarkable Medical Gadgets

Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, recently passed away at the age of 71. What makes her obituary different than the thousands of others that appear in newspapers each day? It's the fact that she spent 60 of those 71 years in an iron lung, after a 1948 polio attack left her paralyzed from the neck down. Mason, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 1960, used a voice-recognition computer to chronicle her life story in the 1994 autobiography Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung. Technology gave her the option to use a portable ventilator many years ago, but Mason preferred the protection of the metal cylinder that had been home to her for so many years. She didn't like the idea of tubes in her throat, incisions into her body, or the frequent hospital visits that would accompany the "improvement." mental_floss invites you to peek into the history of the iron lung and five other medical gadgets and gizmos which have aided both doctors and patients over the last century.

1. The Iron Lung

Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Drinker Respirator was first used on a polio patient in 1928. Following its initial success, and with the disease affecting tens of thousands of Americans, demand quickly grew. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. Cost and availability became pertinent factors in the early 1950s, when every American neighborhood seemed to have at least one polio patient in residence.

2. The Stethoscope

medinv2.jpgAs a young medical-school student in 19th-century Paris, Rene Theophile Hyacinthe Laennec developed a knack for hearing and interpreting the different sounds made by the heart and lungs when he placed his ear on patients' chests. This method only worked if the patient was sufficiently slender, of course. One afternoon, Laennec saw some children playing with wooden boards. One tyke would scratch or tap softly on one end, while another put his ear on the other end of the board to hear the sound. Laennec went back to his office - presumably after removing a splinter from the tyke's ear - and constructed a long tube out of several pieces of rolled-up paper. By placing the end of the cylinder directly on a patient's chest or back, he discovered that he could hear sounds much more clearly than before. After experimenting with different materials and designs, he came up with the stethoscope. In 1819, the medical community began to recognize the use of the gadget as a valuable diagnostic tool.

3. The Blood Pressure Cuff

medinv3.jpgHuman blood pressure was first recorded in 1847 by Dr. Carl Ludwig. Unfortunately, his method required the insertion of a catheter into an artery; not the most convenient procedure. Eight years later, Karl Vierordt discovered that the arterial pulse could be measured non-invasively by wrapping an inflatable cuff tightly around the upper arm and slowly releasing the pressure. The device was subject to regular improvements over the years, and in 1896, Scipione Riva-Rocci devised the first modern sphygmomanometer. He attached the inflatable cuff to a mercury-filled manometer (a device that measures liquid pressure), which provided an accurate account of the force of the blood as the heart tried to pump it past the restricting cuff and into the arm.

4. The Internal Thermometer

medinv4.jpgDaniel Gabriel Fahrenheit developed the first mercury thermometer back in 1720. Before his invention, thermometers relied on a mixture of alcohol and water. Unfortunately, these were too susceptible to air pressure to be of much use. Fahrenheit discovered that not only did mercury expand at a more constant rate than alcohol (providing more accurate results), but it also allowed for readings at much higher and lower temperature extremes. When first used for medical purposes, the typical thermometer was over a foot long and had to be held in place for 20 minutes to accurately determine a patient's temperature. In 1866, British physician Sir Thomas Allbut invented a six-inch bulb thermometer that could record a temperature in only five minutes.

5. The X-Ray Machine

medinv5.jpgGerman physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with cathode rays in his laboratory in November 1895 when he noticed that certain objects in the room began to glow. The humble scientist wasn't quite sure what his findings meant, and his only comment at the time was "I have discovered something interesting, but I do not know whether or not my observations are correct." Roentgen continued his experiments, and a month later, he presented an X-ray of his wife's hand to the Wurzburg Physical-Medical Society. (He'd named his new technology with an X, a variable scientists use to represent an unknown factor.) Roentgen won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and "X-ray-mania" became a fad, Doctors and scientists joined in to take endless "pictures" of human bone structure. Department stores even took X-rays of customers' feet to fit them with the best possible shoes. The dangers of the technology weren't discovered and addressed until the one-two punch of serious X-ray burns and widespread cancer began to affect Thomas Edison's assistant, Clarence Dally.

6. The Pacemaker

medinv6.jpgToronto surgeon Dr. Wilfred Bigelow spent years conducting extensive studies on the treatment of frostbite. In 1949, using techniques he had culled from his research, Bigelow demonstrated that "controlled hypothermia" could be used to slow down the rhythm of the human heart. This tactic would reduce blood flow in the human body, making certain procedures (like open-heart surgery) possible. The main problem with his technique was discovering a way to jump-start the heart if it slowed down too far or came to a complete stop. Luckily, doctor-cum-electrical-engineer John Hopps was in the midst of his own research, hoping to use radio frequencies to restore body temperature in hypothermia patients. During Hopps' experiments, he had discovered that the application of a gentle electrical charge could restart the heart without damaging its muscle tissue. Using Bigelow's technique to operate on the heart, in 1950, he implanted the first pacemaker into a human being.

Naturally, there are dozens of medical devices and procedures that we didn't cover in this article. Which ones have you always wondered about? Like who invented that torturous tongue depressor? Or the name of that shiny round thing that old-time TV doctors always wore on headbands? Or even why, despite a 1 p.m. appointment, you have to wait until 2:30 to see your GP? Please drop a comment, and perhaps we'll revisit this topic again. Thanks!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
8 Unexpected Activities People Have Done in MRI Scanners for Science
iStock
iStock

In medicine, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses powerful magnetic fields and radio waves to show what's happening inside the body, producing dynamic images of our internal organs. Using similar technology that tracks blood flow, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans can show neuroscientists neural activity, indicating what parts of the brain light up when, for instance, a person thinks of an upsetting memory or starts craving cocaine. Both require staying within a massive MRI machine for the length of the scan.

There's some controversy over how scientists interpret fMRI data in particular—fMRI studies are based on the idea that an increase of blood flow to a region of the brain means more cellular activity there, but that might not be a completely accurate measure, and a 2016 report found that fMRI studies may have stunning rates of false positives.

But we're not here to talk about results. We're here to talk about all the weird, weird things scientists have asked people to do in MRI machines so that they could look at their brains and bodies. From getting naked to going to the bathroom, people have been willing to do some unexpected activities in the name of science. Here are just a few of the oddest things that people have done in scanners at the behest of curious researchers.

1. SING OPERA

Researchers once invited world-famous opera singer Michael Volle to sing inside an MRI at the University of Freiburg in Germany. The baritone sang a piece from Richard Wagner's opera Tannhäuser as part of a 2016 study on how the vocal tract moves during singing at different pitches and while changing volume. The study asked 11 other professional singers with different voice types to participate as well. They found that the larynx rose with a singer's pitch, but got lower as the song got louder, and that certain factors, like how open their lips were, correlated more with how loud the singer was than how high they were singing. The scientists concluded that future research on the larynx and the physical aspects of singing should take loudness into consideration.

That study wasn't the first to take MRI images of singers. In 2015, researchers at the University of Illinois demonstrated their technique for recording dynamic MRI imaging of speech using video of U of I speech specialist Aaron Johnson singing "If I Only Had a Brain" from The Wizard of Oz.

2. REACT TO ROBOT-DINOSAUR ABUSE

Stills of a video in which a robot gets petted or beaten by a human
Stills from the videos participants watched of robot dinosaurs being treated kindly or unkindly.
Rosenthal-von der Pütten et al., Computers in Human Behavior (2014)

To test whether or not humans can feel empathy with robots for a 2013 study, researchers put participants into an fMRI machine and made them watch videos of humans and robotic dinosaurs. The videos either included footage of the human or robot being stroked or tickled, or the subject being beaten and choked. The brain scans showed similar activity for people viewing both videos, suggesting that people might be able to feel similar empathy for robots as for people.

3. PLAY VIDEO GAMES WITH A MEAN-SPIRITED A.I.

Two brain scans
Eisenberger et al., Science (2003)

To see whether the brain responds to emotional pain in similar ways to physical pain, researchers asked participants in a 2003 study to experience social rejection within an fMRI machine. During the scans, participants played a virtual ball-tossing game against two other players—whom they believed to be other study participants in other scanners—by watching a screen through goggles and pressing one of two keys to toss the ball to one of the other players. They were actually playing against a computer that was programmed to eventually exclude the human player. At some point during the game, the computer-controlled players stopped throwing the human player the ball, causing them to feel excluded and ignored. The researchers found that the excluded study subjects showed brain activation in regions similar to the ones seen in studies of physical pain.

4. POOP

Watching people poop through MRI imaging is a surprisingly common medical technique. It's called magnetic resonance defecography. Doctors use it to diagnose issues with rectal function, analyzing how the muscles of the pelvis are working and the cause of bowel issues. The scan involves having ultrasound jelly and a catheter inserted into your butt, donning a diaper, and crawling inside an MRI scanner. Then, on command, you clench your pelvic muscles in various ways as ordered by the doctor, eventually resulting in pooping out the ultrasound jelly and whatever else you might need to evacuate. No pressure.

5. HAVE SEX …

MRI of a woman before, pre-, and after orgasm
MRI images of a woman at rest, in a pre-orgasmic phase, and 20 minutes after orgasm (L–R)
Schultz et al. in BMJ, 1999

Scientists have also recorded MRI body scans of couples having sex. In the late '90s, Dutch researcher Pek Van Andel and his colleagues at the University Hospital Groningen asked eight couples to come into their lab on a Saturday and have sex in the tube of an MRI scanner in order to analyze how genitals fit together during heterosexual intercourse. Despite the surroundings, they apparently had a fine time. "The subjective level of sexual arousal of the participants, men and women, during the experiment was described afterwards as average," the study noted.

Meanwhile, other researchers are trying to capture scientific images of sex in different, sometimes even more awkward ways. For her 2008 book Bonk: The Curious Coupling Of Sex And Science, science writer Mary Roach and her husband had sex in a lab at University College London while a researcher stood next to them and held an ultrasound wand to her abdomen.

6. … AND HAVE ORGASMS

Scan of a woman's brain during orgasm
Wise et al., The Journal of Sexual Medicine (2017)

Scientists still don't know all that much about how orgasms work, so various studies have asked participants to come into the lab, lay down in an fMRI scanner, and stimulate themselves to orgasm. (A reporter at Inside Jersey went to Rutgers to take part in the university's orgasm research herself in 2010. She brought her own sex toy, but the lab was kind enough to provide the lube.)

Over the course of their work, Rutgers researchers have found that when people bring themselves to orgasm within an fMRI machine, it activates more than 30 brain systems, including ones that you wouldn't think would be involved in getting off, like the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with problem solving and judgment.

7. COMPOSE MUSIC

A musical score with just a few notes on it
Lu et al., Scientific Reports (2015)

Singers aren't the only music professionals to get inside an fMRI machine for science. For a study published in 2015, 17 young composers were asked to create a piece of music while Chinese researchers examined their brain activity. While all of them played the piano, they were asked to compose a piece for an instrument none of them know how to play—the zheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. They were given a musical staff with just a few introductory notes already written as inspiration and asked to come up with something from there. As soon as they exited the scanner, they wrote down the notes they had imagined during the imaging process. The researchers found that the composers' visual and motor cortex showed less activity than usual, the opposite of what researchers have seen in studies of musical improvisation.

8. HAVE AN OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE

Four brain scans with different areas of the brain lit up in red, yellow, and orange
Activated portions of the brain during an out-of-body experience
Smith and Messier, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2014)

In a 2014 study, psychologists at the University of Ottawa recruited an undergraduate student who reported that she could have out-of-body experiences at will to do so within the confines of an fMRI scanner.

"She was able to see herself rotating in the air above her body, lying flat, and rolling along with the horizontal plane," the researchers wrote. "She reported sometimes watching herself move from above but remained aware of her unmoving 'real' body."

She entered the scanner six times, reporting out-of-body experiences that included feeling as if she were above her body and spinning or rocking side-to-side. The researchers found that the experience activated regions of her brain associated with kinesthetic imagery, the feeling of visualizing movement (as athletes often do during training and competitions, for instance), and a deactivated the visual cortex.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Health
New App Uses Crowdsourcing to Find You an EpiPen in an Emergency
iStock
iStock

Many people at risk for severe allergic reactions to things like peanuts and bee stings carry EpiPens. These tools inject the medication epinephrine into one's bloodstream to control immune responses immediately. But exposure can turn into life-threatening situations in a flash: Without EpiPens, people could suffer anaphylactic shock in less than 15 minutes as they wait for an ambulance. Being without an EpiPen or other auto-injector can have deadly consequences.

EPIMADA, a new app created by researchers at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, is designed to save the lives of people who go into anaphylactic shock when they don't have EpiPens handy. The app uses the same type of algorithms that ride-hailing services use to match drivers and riders by location—in this case, EPIMADA matches people in distress with nearby strangers carrying EpiPens. David Schwartz, director of the university's Social Intelligence Lab and one of the app's co-creators, told The Jerusalem Post that the app currently has hundreds of users. Registered users are required to have an epinephrine prescription, and must apply (by emailing abigailk@mda.org.il) to join the community.

EPIMADA serves as a way to crowdsource medication from fellow patients who might be close by and able to help. While it may seem unlikely that people would rush to give up their own expensive life-saving tool for a stranger, EPIMADA co-creator Michal Gaziel Yablowitz, a doctoral student in the Social Intelligence Lab, explained in a press release that "preliminary research results show that allergy patients are highly motivated to give their personal EpiPen to patient-peers in immediate need."

EpiPen is easy to use, so even though fellow allergy sufferers may not have medical training, it's a relatively low-risk venture to ask them to treat a stranger the same way they'd treat themselves. The tool could be especially useful for children, who may be most likely to forget their EpiPens.

The app is currently available only in Israel, but the idea could be applicable across the world, for multiple life-threatening conditions. The researchers are collaborating on similar patient-to-patient apps elsewhere, including one in Philadelphia connecting people who carry the opioid overdose reversal medication naloxone.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios