They're called "slow waves" and although we don't feel them, they propagate through our bodies each time we eat something.

Scientists know them as the hidden bioelectrical events that spark and guide the mechanical contractions that break down and transport food through our gastro-intestinal (GI) tracts.

In a healthy stomach, these waves work in a routine, highly-organised pattern down the stomach, keeping our digestive engines working as they should.

But when these waves behave abnormally, the results can be painful, causing upsets like abdominal pain, bloating, nausea and vomiting.


Because of the complexity involved, there's still much that researchers have to learn about these abnormal slow wave patterns, called dysrhythmias.

Diagnosing specific digestive disorders can also be difficult - and today's approaches for detecting "spatially complex" GI dysrhythmias require surgery.

In a just-funded study, a University of Auckland researcher is poised to find an easier way to learn how these problems happen, and how they can be better diagnosed.

Over recent years, Dr Timothy Angeli and colleagues at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute have been hunting for spatial abnormalities associated with gastro-intestinal disorders.

They now aim to develop a new way to diagnose gastric dysrhythmias, by mapping the electrical processes involved in the waves through a minimally-invasive endoscopic, or down-the-throat, approach.

It would involve applying a custom-designed electrode array inside the stomach that could map slow wave activation patterns in unprecedented resolution.

In studies over previous decades, researchers had been limited by being able to study only small numbers of electrodes at a time.

The new technology would offer a much more detailed picture by simultaneously recording more than 250 electrodes, Angeli said.

The mapping could potentially be used as part of routine endoscopies.

"Any normal GI doctor would probably do 20 of them a week; so it would open this technology up to a much wider patient population."

Better diagnosis could benefit a huge number of people who suffer from digestive disorders.

"Even if you just consider things like heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (Gerd), some of those more widespread disorders affect up to 30 per cent of populations in western countries," Angeli said.

"I guess what's really exciting about science is when you can try to translate something into the clinic - and we feel we are really at the cutting edge."

The new two-year study is supported by a $200,000 grant from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation.