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Page last updated at 15:38 GMT, Monday, 22 June 2009 16:38 UK
Fish + electricity = new treatment
Black Ghost Knife Fish
The Black Ghost Knife Fish uses electricity to locate its prey

Mathematicians are hoping that an 'electric fish' may help them develop a better treatment for patients with serious lung problems.

The Black Ghost Knife Fish uses electric fields to locate its prey in the murky waters of the Amazon.

It's now thought that the maths behind its 'electrosensing' could be applied to improve a technology used to look inside the human body.

Seminars are to be held in Manchester to discuss the possibilities.


The Black Ghost Knife Fish (Apteronotus albifrons) is known for its graceful, rippling movement and is popular with people who keep tropical fish.

Not only is it able to swim backwards as well as forwards, it's also one of a small number of fish that can generate electric fields around them.

Prof Lionheart explains the complex mathematics of electric fish to Stuart Flinders of North West Tonight

And exactly how it uses electricity as a sensory device is now slowly being unravelled by mathematicians.

"Weakly electric fish are really interesting to us because they have the ability to solve a very challenging mathematical problem when catching their food." explained Professor Bill Lionheart at The University of Manchester.

"These fish put out an electrical signal and measure that to see whether it's something they might like to eat, or something that's going to eat them."

It was while working on a technique called Electrical Impedance Tomography (EIT) to see things hidden in the human body that he made an important connection.

"It occurred to us that electric fish know how to do that anyway," said Prof Lionheart.

"So, we wondered if we could learn how to do this efficiently and quickly because the fish has quite a small brain but is very good at it."


EIT is a technique used in a number of fields including medicine and geology.

Weakly electric fish are really interesting to us because they have the ability to solve a challenging mathematical problem when catching their food
Prof Bill Lionheart

For instance, engineers use EIT to see inside gas and oil pipelines and similar mathematics is used in 3D airport body scanners.

But, importantly, EIT can be used to monitor lungs in intensive care patients and medical professionals have now been invited to a special session at the University that focuses on using the technology for lung imaging.

It's hoped that discussions with doctors and consultants on their needs and desires will help mathematicians provide effective solutions to real-life problems.


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