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Computer Spots Dangerous Heart Murmurs

Program does better than doctor's ear

MONDAY, June 4, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Two Colorado researchers say they have a solution for a problem that worries thousands of doctors and parents every year: determining whether a child's heart murmur is dangerous.

When pediatricians listen to children's heartbeats, they hear sounds that shouldn't be there more than 75 percent of the time. Only one in 100 of these murmurs indicate a serious problem, such as a defective valve or a heart malformation. But because the ear alone often cannot tell the difference between an innocent and a pathological murmur, further tests may be needed, perhaps an echocardiogram, costing $1,000.

Now Dr. Curt G. DeGroff, a pediatric cardiologist, and Roop L. Mahajan, a computer expert, say they have begun building a computer program that can quickly tell the difference between harmless and dangerous murmurs in a doctor's office.

"It uses an electronic stethoscope, which soon will be standard equipment," says DeGroff, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Costing about $500, compared to $100 for a standard stethoscope, the device offers one great advantage: The sound spectrum of the heartbeat can be recorded and transmitted into a laptop or desktop computer.

The computer then can compare the heartbeat with recordings of harmless and pathological heart murmurs, using a program devised by Mahajan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The first version of so-called "artificial neural network" has been successfully tested, the researchers report in the June 5 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The program uses heart sound recordings from 37 patients with abnormal murmurs and 32 others with innocent murmurs. Tested on children with a variety of murmurs, the program was 100 percent effective in identifying dangerous and innocent heart murmurs, the researchers report.

DeGroff says that's just the beginning: The next step will be to expand the range of murmurs in the program to 500 patients. "We are in the process of doing that. We need to capture a broad spectrum of innocent and pathological heart murmurs," he says.

The step beyond that is recording an even wider range of murmurs, with a concentration on the harmful ones. "Once we have a large body of data, we can differentiate between pathologies," Mahajan says. "We can say not only whether a murmur is innocent or pathological, but also whether it is this kind of pathology or that kind of pathology."

Both researchers say their big need right now is for money.

"The biggest holdup is additional funding so that we can have the appropriate people gather data and analyze the data," DeGroff says. "So far, we have been doing the work with private donations, mostly from the Children's Hospital Research Institute."

"We are in the process of exploring different avenues" of private and government funding, DeGroff says.

If funding becomes available, and the system works well, it could move beyond diagnosis, DeGroff says. He foresees mass screening of children in clinics and schools to pick up heart problems at the earliest stages.

What To Do

Parents should be aware of the need diagnose children's heart murmurs, but that most murmurs are not signs of danger.

For a rundown on heart murmurs, go to the American Heart Association or the Children's Heart Institute.

Read these HealthDay articles about children and heart disease.

SOURCES: Interviews with Curt G. DeGroff, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver, and Roop L. Mahajan, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder; June 4, 2001, Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association
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