Melvin Keierleber knows from personal and professional experience that being tested in a lab for sleep apnea isn't very comfortable.
The patient wears a harness, two belts and 28 wires while trying to sleep in a setting that isn't as cozy as one's own bedroom. But for a couple of nights, people believed to suffer from the sleep disorder endure the discomfort to get a diagnosis and a prescription for treatment.
"It's not very conducive for sleep," said Keierleber, who has sleep apnea and works at a sleep laboratory.
Improving comfort and the ability to diagnose and understand sleep apnea is in the works at the University of Texas at Arlington, where bioengineering researchers are collaborating with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and Dr. John Burk, medical director of Sleep Consultants of Fort Worth.
Researchers have designed a more portable ultrasonic sensor system that will allow patients to be tested at home for a longer period.
"You get to monitor -- not just the single night that we do in the lab -- you could measure multiple nights," Burk said.
A common disorder
The American Sleep Apnea Association defines the disorder as "an involuntary cessation of breathing when the patient is asleep." There are three types: obstructive, central and mixed; in all three, people stop breathing while they sleep.
Untreated sleep apnea can be tied to other problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes and auto accidents caused by people falling asleep while driving. Experts estimate that about 15 percent of adults nationwide are affected by sleep apnea.
The research team has been testing the device prototype in a study with about 10 subjects. UTA has applied for a provisional patent for its concept and technology.
Khosrow Behbehani, professor and chairman of UTA's engineering department, said the researchers are looking for private partners to manufacture and market the device. They hope to use wireless technology to monitor patients from a lab as they sleep at home.
"Sometimes patients cannot sleep because it is a new environment and uncomfortable," Behbehani said of in-lab testing. The tests can be costly, too: about $1,500 a session, he said.
Typically, patients get one session to determine whether they have sleep apnea and a second to determine a program to address the condition.The new diagnostic device will be cheaper and more practical so patients can get medical help more easily, Behbehani said. The device could result in about 50 percent savings on sessions, he said, but that's a guess because the product hasn't been finalized.
The device uses ultrasonic sensors attached to the patient's neck during sleep. Inaudible sound waves detect whether a patient's airway is open, Behbehani said.
Burk said medical experts will be able to look at sleeping problems over a longer period and perhaps adjust treatment.
The prototype builds on Behbehani and Burk's previous work in the treatment of sleep apnea. They developed and licensed an apnea machine in the 1990s that treats patients while they sleep. That device, called the automatic positive airway pressure system, uses sensors to regulate airflow and pump air into a patient's airway.
Diane Smith, 817-390-7675