An ex-Facebook executive says her new device will let us 'see inside' the body and brain

Mary lou jepsenRock HealthJepsen (left) at the 2017 Rock Health Summit in San Francisco.
  • Former Facebook executive Mary Lou Jepsen said a near-death experience inspired her latest project, a device that she said would let us “look inside any part of the body.”
  • Jepsen has been vague about the technology but said it would be affordable and wearable with MRI-like capabilities.
  • She claims the device could have a broad range of applications, including learning more about a range of mental illnesses as well as heart disease and certain types of cancer, but has yet to release further details.

A brush with death inspired ex-Facebook executive Mary Lou Jepsen’s latest venture — a technology that she claims will enable us to peak inside our bodies and brains.

“Why let people suffer if we can find out what’s really going on?” Jepsen said at the Rock Health Summit in San Francisco on Tuesday. Her new technology, she explained, “can look inside your body — at any part of the body — in high resolution.”

She was first inspired to delve into the project after learning she had a brain tumour as a graduate student in her 20s. For months, Jepsen struggled with debilitating headaches, but she had no idea what was wrong until she finally got an MRI — a costly scan of her brain that today can still only be done in specially-equipped hospitals.

“I nearly died because I didn’t know I needed an MRI,” Jepsen said.

Now Jepsen is working on something that would replace the machine — which costs hospitals roughly $US3 million to buy and costs consumers about $US2,600 per test — with something people could wear potentially all the time.

Dozens of unanswered questions about Jepsen’s mysterious device remain. In August, Jepsen announced she was leaving her one-year stint at Facebook — where she had served as the company’s executive director of engineering and the head of display technologies at its virtual reality arm Oculus — to work on the project, which she described then as a “new imaging technology” that would help “cure diseases.” Jepsen added that the device would shrink down the capabilities of an MRI into something affordable that people could wear, like a hat.

MRI singing manYouTube/BeckmanInstituteA still from the YouTube video of a man singing ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ in an MRI machine.

MRIs use radio waves and strong magnets to create pictures of organs and structures inside the body. In Jepsen’s case, the test was used to spot a tumour in her brain.

Jepsen’s new tool would do the same thing, but instead of using strong magnets, it would use near-infrared light — a type of light that can penetrate cells and approximate blood flow by distinguishing between blood that has been oxygenated and is flowing away from the heart and blood that has not been oxygenated and is flowing towards it, she said on Tuesday. “Oxygenated blood and deoxygenated blood are different colours,” Jepsen said.

A preliminary version of the device, she said, has allowed her to get a more accurate and defined picture of the inner-workings of the brain and body than the fuzzy, pixelated images generated by existing MRI machines. “We got a billion times higher resolution than an MRI,” Jepsen said.

It’s still unclear exactly what the new device will be called and how far along in development it is, but Jepsen said she could see it being used for a variety of applications, from peaking inside the brain — where it could potentially improve our understanding of mental illnesses like depression — to glimpsing the inner-workings of the heart or tumours — where it could help treat diseases like cancer and heart disease.

“You can buy a blood pressure cuff,” Jepsen said. “How come you can’t look inside your body?”

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