KINGSTON, R.I., March 26, 2018—University of Rhode Island engineering students want to take your pulse—28 different ways.
The students are creating a silicone wrist that simulates the 28 pulse patterns used in traditional Chinese medicine to diagnose various diseases.
Ian Kanterman, Mackenzie Mitchell and Jake Morris will present the “Wrist Pulse Simulator” to the Undergraduate Design Competition of the Northeast Bioengineering Conference March 28 at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“This project reminds us that science and medicine are universal,” Kanterman says, “but done in various ways.”
Most are familiar with the Western way: A health care worker places two fingers on a patient’s wrist to measure one thing: heart rate.
In traditional Chinese medicine, pulse diagnosis using three fingers with different compression pressures is a more developed process, a tool practitioners use to detect diseases, like liver failure.
Training a practitioner to find all those pulse patterns on one person can be difficult, if not impossible.
The silicone wrist created by the URI students solves that problem by mimicking the pulse points, and it also provides a valuable teaching tool.
The team is building off two years of research by previous URI engineering students.
Ying Sun, professor in the Department of Electrical, Computer and Biomedical Engineering, says the idea for the capstone project came from Dr. Mona Boudreaux, a veterinarian in Illinois and sister of URI engineering professor G. Faye Boudreaux-Bartels.
Boudreaux uses traditional Chinese medicine to treat animals and told her sister about the difficulty of detecting pulse patterns, even in animals.
“We thought it sounded like a great idea to pursue for a project that can help people,” says Sun. “It’s highly technical, but also unique, and can be very useful as a teaching tool and for research.”
Pulse taking is an ancient technique in Chinese medicine. Thousands of years ago X-rays to produce pictures of the body’s inside didn’t exist. Pulse diagnosis was a way to evaluate the body’s internal organs.
A caregiver rests three fingers over the wrist’s radial artery. Each finger rests on a section of the pulse, with the caregiver searching for pulse length, depth and quality.
A pulse that feels straight and long can reveal liver disease. A pulse that can only be felt by pressing to the bone indicates that the illness is deep inside the body. A pulse that feels deep and soft signals a blood deficiency.
Mitchell, of Coventry, who will graduate this spring with degrees in biomedical engineering and German in the International Engineering Program, says the project fits her career goal. She hopes to become a naturopathic doctor, blending natural medicine with conventional diagnosis and treatment.
“This capstone project aligns perfectly with my passion for naturopathic medicine,” she says. “My team and I set out to modernize one practice within traditional Chinese medicine—pulse diagnosis.”
To learn about the 28 pulse patterns practitioners must rely on other caregivers to describe the patterns. “As you can imagine,” says Mitchell, “this leaves far too much room for interpretation and a lack of standardization.”
The simulator, she says, will give specialists the credibility they need to regulate and even popularize a practice that is growing as people seek more natural ways to diagnose and treat illnesses.
When the wrist pulse simulator is connected to a power source, the first pulse pattern begins to play. Three electromagnetic pushers—called solenoids—on the wrist move up and down to imitate the 28 most common pulse patterns in traditional Chinese medicine.
With an app, users are able to cycle through 28 settings, one setting for each pulse. Practitioners-in-training can use the wrist to study the different pulses, taking time to notice the subtle differences among them.
“Our project is still in the early stages of development, and in the future the wrist will need to be tested by practitioners,” says Mitchell. “Each pulse drawing must be tweaked until practitioners agree on how each pulse should feel. It may take years to develop a product that can be put on the market, but our prototype provides an excellent starting point.”
Kanterman, of Brick, N.J., who will graduate this spring with degrees in biomedical engineering and French in the International Engineering Program, says the project bridges the gap between Western and Eastern medicine. He says it also gave him a chance to put to use what he’s learned in the classroom.
“This project has allowed us the opportunity to develop our skills as engineers through the use of new software and smartphone applications,” he says. “Capstone is an important step for us as engineers to use our knowledge and skills gained over the years to produce something concrete. It’s a manifestation of all our hard work.”
Morris, of South Kingstown, says the project is preparing him for a career in biomedical engineering: “Not only does this project motivate me to be the best engineer I can, but it also has given me new and exciting ideas and experiences that I know will play a huge role in my future as a biomedical engineer.”