Wireless Sleep Apnoea Detection: Home-Based Breakthrough

01-06-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Getting a diagnosis for sleep disorders can be extremely expensive, and this often leads to many with long-lasting conditions such as sleep apnoea which can harm health. Now, researchers have developed a new wearable sensor and accompanying software tools to detect such conditions at a fraction of the cost at home, eliminating the need for expensive procedures. What challenges do sleep disorders present, what did the researchers develop, and how could this help to reduce the cost of health care?

What challenges do sleep disorders present?

Sleep disorders, including sleep apnoea, can have significant long-term effects on both physical and mental health, such as fragmented sleep patterns, insufficient oxygen supply to the body, excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and impaired cognitive function. Prolonged sleep apnoea can increase the risk of developing serious health conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, and depression. 

Given these potential health implications, it is imperative for individuals suspecting sleep apnoea to seek diagnostic testing. However, numerous obstacles, including cost and accessibility, often deter individuals from pursuing necessary sleep tests and procedures, leaving millions without adequate care.  

The Financial Implications of Diagnosis

The process of diagnosing sleep disorders, including sleep apnoea, can be both time-consuming and costly. It typically involves a comprehensive evaluation of an individual’s sleep patterns and physiological parameters. The gold standard diagnostic test for sleep apnoea is polysomnography (PSG), which involves an overnight stay at a sleep centre, where various parameters such as brain waves, eye movement, heart rate, and breathing patterns are monitored. PSG provides valuable data for diagnosing sleep disorders, but it can be expensive, with costs ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars. In addition to the financial burden, the limited availability of sleep centres and long waiting times for diagnostic procedures further exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals seeking diagnosis and treatment.

Procedures for Treating Sleep Apnoea

Once sleep apnoea is diagnosed, treatment options are available to mitigate its adverse effects and improve sleep quality. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) therapy is the most common and effective treatment for sleep apnoea. CPAP involves wearing a mask over the nose or mouth during sleep, which delivers a continuous flow of pressurized air to keep the airway open. While CPAP therapy is highly effective, ensuring compliance can be challenging for some individuals due to discomfort, skin irritation, or claustrophobia associated with wearing the mask.

In cases where CPAP therapy is not well-tolerated or does not provide the desired outcomes, alternative treatments may be explored. These include:

  • Oral Appliances: Custom-made oral devices can be used to reposition the jaw and tongue, thereby keeping the airway open
  • Surgery: Surgical interventions, such as uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (UPPP) or maxillomandibular advancement (MMA), may be recommended for severe cases where anatomical abnormalities contribute to sleep apnoea
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Certain lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, regular exercise, and avoidance of alcohol and sedatives, can help alleviate symptoms and improve sleep quality in mild cases of sleep apnoea

Overall, obtaining a diagnosis for sleep disorders can be a significant challenge, even before considering the treatment options for those who receive a positive diagnosis.

Researchers develop low-cost wearable sensor for at-home sleep testing

Recognising the challenges faced with diagnosing sleep disorders, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech have published a paper on a newly developed device that can allow individuals to self-test for sleep apnoea. According to a recent study published in Science Advances, the new wearable sensor developed by researchers at Georgia Tech can accurately detect symptoms of sleep apnoea, including arrested breathing and high blood pressure. 

During sleep, those with sleep apnoea will often have two main symptoms, arrested breathing (i.e., inability to breathe) and high blood pressure as a result of struggling to breathe. These symptoms can also be followed up by momentary waking, which reopens the airways and mouth, but this can often go unnoticed by the individual. 

As such, the researchers developed a wearable patch that is capable of detecting these major symptoms and stream this data to a smartphone via Bluetooth. Specifically, the sensor patch is capable of monitoring brain, eye, and muscle activity, and this gathered data can then be sent to a remote facility for processing, either by medical experts, AI, or both. 

 (A) Picture of a home-based, wireless sleep monitor for real-time EEG, EOG, and EMG tracking with advanced sleep stage classification and sleep apnea detection via a portable gadget. (B-C) Images of soft wearable patches snugly affixed to facial regions, specifically the forehead (B) and chin (C). Each scale bar measures 2 cm. (D) Snapshot of the forehead patch attached to a PTFE carrier for easy management and prolonged usage. Scale bar at 2 cm. (E) View of the rear side of the flexible patch from (D) with nanomembrane electrodes displayed. Scale bar is 2 cm. (F) Picture of the stretchable chin patch ensuring a snug skin fit (with inset image). Scale bar at 1 cm. (G) Depiction of the face-mounted sleep monitor, inclusive of electrodes, connectors, circuits, and a Silbione adhesive on fabric. Scale bar is 3 cm. (H) Close-up of the flexible, multilayered circuits, comprised of metals, polymers, and chips, all shielded by silicone membranes for strain relief during assembly, handling, and use during sleep. 

“A lot of people have this disorder, but they don’t know it because it’s very hard to diagnose right now. Current smartphone apps don’t capture the specific data doctors and clinicians study to determine if a patient has apnoea, rendering them useless.” - W. Hong Yeo, Associate Professor and Woodruff Faculty Fellow in Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering

By allowing individuals to gather their own data, they can remove the need to visit a sleep centre, thereby reducing the cost of diagnosis. However, the sensor doesn’t just gather sleep data to determine if sleep apnoea is an issue but can even use this data with machine learning algorithms to determine if there is a risk that sleep apnoea will become an issue later in life.

"As lead researcher W. Hong Yeo explains, 'A lot of people have this disorder, but they don't know it because it's very hard to diagnose right now. Our device could make it much easier and more affordable for people to get the diagnosis they need.'

One of the standout features of this wearable sleep monitoring patch is its accuracy. The study found that the device was able to detect sleep apnoea with an impressive accuracy of 88.52%. This high level of precision sets it apart from other wearable sleep monitors on the market. 

Finally, considering that the typical cost for a sleep apnoea test at a hospital can exceed $8,000 per night, allowing individuals to take their own sensor readings helps to dramatically reduce the cost of entry for testing.

How could this type of wearable technology help to reduce the cost of health care?

There is no doubt that the numerous advances in modern medicine have resulted in significantly longer lifespans, along with safer treatment options and a more comfortable treatment experience. However, the cost of healthcare has remained extraordinarily high, and this can make providing the best care a challenge. 

Unfortunately, there is no one exact cause for the high cost of treatment, but some contributing factors include red tape with medical equipment manufacturing, the restrictions placed by patents and IP, the high rates that insurance companies and hospitals charge, and the niche nature of many medicines and procedures. If wearable sensors and equipment can be made cheap enough that individuals are able to own and operate them without medical assistance, it is possible to significantly reduce the cost of diagnosis. 

At the same time, gathering medical data at earlier stages in life also helps to provide insight into potential conditions that can be stopped before they become a problem. Generally speaking, medical conditions become far more difficult to treat if they are allowed to progress, which is why it is essential that regular check-ups are done. By allowing individuals to test themselves at home, they can catch these conditions before they worsen, thereby reducing the cost of treatment.

While the research does not explicitly state that the device can predict the risk of developing sleep apnoea in the future, its ability to provide real-time, automated, and accurate detection of sleep stages and disorders could potentially be used to identify early signs of sleep apnoea. This opens up exciting possibilities for preventative health measures in the realm of sleep disorders. 

What the researchers have demonstrated is a truly exciting piece of technology, as it helps to significantly lower the cost of sleep tests. If this technology can be used in mainstream diagnostic environments, it could help millions around the world improve their health while avoiding the long-term effects of sleep disorders. 


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.