Wave on Soundwave

From ocean explorations to human echography

Bat - Spectrogram of echolocation signalsFondazione Bracco

Inspiration from nature

It was nature that inspired the first utilisation of ultrasound. In 1794 the Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani concluded that bats used ultrasound for orientation during their night flying. Bats send out ultrasounds produced by their vocal system and detect the echoes which bounce off the surrounding surfaces or from their prey, providing them with information about distance and morphology. Although humans are not able to hear ultrasounds, this ability is shared by other animals, such as dolphins and whales, who use them to communicate amongst themselves.

Dolphin - Spectrogram of echolocation signalsFondazione Bracco

Dolphin: spectrogram of echolocation signals

Whale - Spectrogram of echolocation signalsFondazione Bracco

Whale: spectrogram of echolocation signals

SONAR scan of the ocean floor / NOAA - Ocean Explorer ProgramFondazione Bracco

Sonar, the precursor of ecography

The use of sonar impulses can first be seen at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the tragedy of the Titanic in 1912, the British mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson invented an instrument to install on ships to identify submerged obstacles. This necessity led on to SONAR, SOundNavigation And Ranging, developed between the two world wars and installed on ships to detect submarines. It works on the basis of the emission of ultrasounds and the successive detection of any echoes bouncing off surfaces present in the sea.

Ocean exploration / NOAA - Ocean Explorer ProgramFondazione Bracco

Ocean exploration / NOAA - Ocean Explorer ProgramFondazione Bracco

Ian Donald at work with one of his diagnostic machines (1960)Fondazione Bracco

The genius of Donald

The diagnostic use of ultrasound started from the intuition of the creative Scottish physicist Ian Donald. His passion for constructing various instruments earned him the nickname of “Mad Donald”. After specialising in obstetrics and gynocology,Donald conducted numerous experiments in the use of ultrasound in the diagnosisof cysts, fibrosis and other abdominal tumours. In the middle of the 1950s his workwas underrated by the scientific community until the day in which, thanks to hisultrasonic examination, he managed to save the life of a patient by diagnosing an ovariancyst.

First ultrasound images obtained by Donald (1958)Fondazione Bracco

First ultrasound images obtained by Donald (1958)

Ultrasound examinationFondazione Bracco

From sound to image

Diagnostic imaging with ultrasound has made it possible for the first time to explore inside the human body and to obtain moving images without the use of radiation. These images are produced by means of a “probe”, an instrument which is placed on the body of the patient. The probe is able to emit a sound wave which registers the echo thrown back from the internal tissues and organs, sending the data to a powerful computer which elaborates it in real time to produce the images. Today, ultrasound constitutes around 20% of the examinations carried out in radiology departments and in patient clinics.

Echo Colour DopplerFondazione Bracco

Fetal ultrasound scanFondazione Bracco

Liver - 2D ultrasound scanFondazione Bracco

Why is ultrasounds so useful?

Ultrasound was soon shown to be fundamental in the diagnosis of disease or dysfunction of the liver, kidneys and pancreas, all difficult to examine, but also of organs in rapid movement, such as the heart.It is also vital for studying blood flow, or in those cases where diagnosis is based on the study of anatomical details where the position is not clear, for example prenatal diagnosis or in the search for abnormal internal organ tissue.Its widespread use has become popular due to the harmless nature of its emissions, its relative inexpensiveness and flexibility in taking the equipment to the patient’s bedside. This technique also has a special diagnostic sensitivity to the pathologies of the organs made up of soft tissue or of the glands, such as the thyroid.

Liver and kidney - 2D ultrasound scanFondazione Bracco

Liver and kidney: 2D ultrasound scan

Kidney - 2D ultrasound scanFondazione Bracco

Kidney: 2D ultrasound scan

The relationship between 2D and 3D imaging.Fondazione Bracco

From chaos to diagnosis

If you drop a stone into water, the waves generated by the impact will bounce, creating extensive turbulence. Like every other type of wave phenomenon, ultrasound is subject to reflection, refraction,diffraction and impedence, which change the speed of the transmission and the intensity of the signal. Ultrasound technology allows all these signals to be taken into account, producing images which have become increasingly precise and detailed as the technology has advanced.

3D fetal ultrasound scanFondazione Bracco

Ultrasound in 3D and 4D

The most recent and spectacular ultrasound technique is the 3D type, which if we also consider the time factor, can more correctly be defined as 4D. Three-dimensiona lvisualisation is often used in the examination of the foetus during pregnancy. In this kind of examination the body is scanned from multiple angles. The data to be studied is gathered and digitalised in fractions of a second,after which it can be examined bothtwo-dimensionally and three-dimensionally

Microbubbles for ultrasoundFondazione Bracco

Informative microbubbles

Contrast enhanced ultrasound allows the dynamic study of blood flow in deep tissue. At the start of this century, Bracco researchers discovered a contrast agent based on microbubbles, which made possible diagnoses otherwise impossible. The machine emits a beam of ultrasound, to which the microbubbles react by vibrating. This vibration is then recorded and transformed into images.

Microbubbles for ultrasoundFondazione Bracco

Microbubbles for ultrasound

Fluorescence-guided surgery and the futureFondazione Bracco

Diagnostic imaging lets us see and work with infinitely small molecules, thanks to new machines and contrast agents that can be called 'intelligent probes' - microbubbles and fluorescent molecules.

Credits: Story

The previous contents are taken from the exhibition:
The Beauty of Imaging
Triennale di Milano
Milan, 27th May – 2nd July 2017

The exhibition was promoted by Bracco Group on the occasion of its 90th anniversary. It was curated by FeelRouge Worldwide Shows with the artistic supervision of Marco Balich and concept & design by Giò Forma Studio.

After the Milanese edition, attended by more than 10,000 visitors, The Beauty of Imaging was then hosted at the Città della Scienza in Naples (10 October 2018 - 6 January 2019), where it took an educational stance with 5 workshops dedicated to schools: “A terrestrial X-Ray”, “See the invisible”, “Molecules in movement”, “Looking for magnetic resonance, X-Rays, ultrasounds of artists!” and “The thousand lives of imaging: a journey between art and science”.
The Beauty of Imaging has thus become the greatest educational event ever done on diagnostic imaging, welcoming over 55,000 people, including many schools/elementary school students.

Thanks to the institutions, museums and authorities that granted access to the resources and archives.
Thanks for the cooperation in the content’s creation to:
Bracco Imaging
CDI – Italian Diagnostic Centre
Bracco Foundation
Bracco historic archive
C&I Department, Bracco Group

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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