A smart pill that can measure your breathing and heart rate from inside your stomach could potentially diagnose sleep apnea and even detect opioid overdoses.
Sleep apnea is defined as a failure to breathe during sleep. Diagnosis usually involves an overnight stay in the hospital while connected to equipment that monitors a person’s breathing, heart rate, and other physiological measures.
Now, Giovanni Traverso and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an ingestible electronic device that could allow people to be wirelessly and inexpensively evaluated for sleep apnea while at home.
The device, which is roughly the size of a vitamin supplement, contains a tiny accelerometer that measures breathing and heart rate by detecting vibrations in the gut. It also has a medical-implant radio to transmit this information to an external computer.
The team tested the smart pill on 10 people with an average age of 41 who were previously booked into the West Virginia University Medicine Sleep Evaluation Center.
All participants were able to swallow the pill easily and did not experience any side effects. Once in their gut, it measured their breathing rate with 93 percent accuracy and heart rate with 96 percent accuracy, which was determined by connecting the participants to standard monitoring devices.
Only one person in the study had undiagnosed sleep apnea, which the researchers were able to detect through measurements collected by the device.
Traverso and his colleagues believe the pill could also be given to opioid users to detect if they stop breathing due to an overdose and then send an alert for help.
To explore this idea, they inserted a pill into the stomach of an anesthetized pig before administering a large dose of the opioid fentanyl. The device detected when fentanyl caused a sharp drop in the pig’s breathing rate, allowing researchers to administer the drug naloxone to reverse the opioid effects and normalize the pig’s breathing rate.
In its current form, the pill is typically excreted within a day, which may limit its usefulness in detecting overdose. However, researchers hope to modify it so that it can last longer in the intestine. They are also looking at ways to engineer the pill so that it can automatically release naloxone when the opioid user stops breathing.