A smart pill that can measure your breathing and heart rate from inside your gut could potentially diagnose sleep apnoea and even detect opioid overdoses.
Sleep apnoea is defined as lapses in breathing during sleep. Diagnosis usually involves an overnight stay in hospital while being hooked up to devices that monitor a person’s breathing, heart rate and other physiological measures.
Now, Giovanni Traverso at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his colleagues have developed an ingestible electronic device that may allow people to be assessed for sleep apnoea wirelessly and cheaply 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 in 10 people, with an average age of 41, who were already booked in at the West Virginia University Medicine Sleep Evaluation Center.
All the participants were able to easily swallow the pill and didn’t experience any side effects. Once in their guts, it measured their breathing rate with 93 per cent accuracy and heart rate with 96 per cent accuracy, which were determined by connecting the participants to standard monitoring equipment.
Only one person in the study had uncontrolled sleep apnoea, which the researchers were able to detect via the 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 introduced the pill into the stomach of an anaesthetised pig before giving it a large dose of the opioid fentanyl. The device detected when the fentanyl caused a sharp drop in the pig’s breathing rate, allowing the researchers to administer the medicine naloxone to reverse the opioid effects and return the pig’s breathing rate to normal.
In its current form, the pill is typically excreted within a day, which could limit its utility in detecting overdoses. However, the researchers hope to modify it so it can stay in the gut for longer. They are also looking at ways to engineer the pill so it automatically releases naloxone when an opioid user stops breathing.