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App-nea: UW Researchers Diagnose A Sleep Disorder With A Smartphone

University of Washington
The ApneaApp turns a smartphone into a kind of sonar device, allowing it to sebnse sleep apnea events while the person sleeps.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a smartphone app to test for sleep apnea, a common but potentially serious sleep disorder.

People with sleep apnea struggle with or stop breathing while they sleep. It affects up to 18 million Americans according to the National Institutes of Health. But getting diagnosed tends to be expensive and invasive. UW grad student Rajalakshmi Nandakumar says it generally involves an overnight stay at a sleep lab, in a less-than-restful setting.

“They are hooked up with 20 sensors. It includes a sensor which is going up your nose, and you have to sleep with it. And there’s a technician who monitors you completely over the night to actually get you the results,” Nandakumar said.

Nandakumar and her computer science collaborators, along with researchers at the UW Medicine Sleep Center, are hoping to replace that whole apparatus with a regular Android phone, fashioned into a sort of sonar device.

The phone sits on a person’s bedside table and emits an inaudible sonic signal from its speaker, which bounces off the person’s body back to the phone’s mic. Like a bat echo-locating, the sound waves can register shapes and movement, including that of a sleeping person’s abdomen. That in turn can reveal the signatures of sleep apnea.

In an initial trial on 37 Harborview sleep patients, Nandakumar says the app was 95 percent as effective as the traditional diagnostics. The researchers will present their findings at conferences in May and June. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.