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Electronic Nose Offers Sleep Apnea Sufferers New Hope

A new study reveals promising technology for diagnosing obstructive sleep apnea in clinical practice.

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The Gist

The first study to consider using an electronic nose to help diagnose sleep apnea has found positive results that could lead to faster and less expensive detection than current methods. The research, published online in the European Respiratory Journal, analyzed the breath of 40 sleep apnea patients and 20 healthy control subjects. Scientists found that the electronic nose could effectively diagnose the disorder with a sensitivity of 93 percent. 

Sleep apnea is a chronic, disruptive sleep condition characterized by breathing pauses or shallow breathing during sleep. Typically, airways collapse or become blocked due to inflammation in the upper airways. It affects more than 18 million Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Several nasal devices are already on the market to treat the disorder, but this is the first one to help detect it. Electronic nose devices have been shown to help detect other diseases by analyzing the pattern of volatile organic compounds in breath samples.

Though sleep apnea is quite common, it often goes undiagnosed. The current gold standard is an overnight sleep test in a lab, which is cost-intensive and time-consuming for patients. The American Sleep Apnea Association estimates that diagnosis and treatment generally costs more than $1,000, which can be particularly troublesome for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

The Expert Take

“This is the first time an electronic nose has been tested in the setting of sleep apnea diagnosis,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Timm Greulich from the Marburg Hospital in Germany. “The electronic nose could be useful in two ways. First, it can rule out the disease in a low prevalence population. Secondly, in a population with a high risk of sleep apnea, the device could be used to help decide who would need to undergo an overnight sleep examination. We foresee that the use of an electronic nose could reduce costs by more appropriately selecting patients who require the sleep examination.”

More research is still required, however, because this study examined only a very small population.

“This is an interesting study, adding to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that electronic noses are a future potential tool for the detection of respiratory diseases,” said European Respiratory Journal Associate Editor Ramon Farre. “Although the results are encouraging, it is important to acknowledge the limitations in this kind of statistical analysis, and it is not yet definite proof that this is an accurate diagnostic tool. We look forward to seeing future research expanding on this important initial research.”

The Takeaway

If left untreated, sleep apnea can have serious consequences, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, and even auto accidents caused by falling asleep at the wheel. It’s also the leading cause of excessive daytime sleepiness, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Those who suspect they have sleep apnea should talk to their primary care physicians or go directly to a clinic that specializes in diagnosing it. In the future, an electronic nose may help patients more quickly determine whether or not they need to undergo an overnight sleep study.

Other Research

The current research on electronic noses was also reported at the 20th Annual Congress of the European Respiratory Society.

Scientists are exploring this method to help diagnose malignant mesothelioma (MM), a rare tumor, which is difficult to detect in its early stages but when found early can improve survival rates. Research shows that the devices can help distinguish among patients with MM, benign asbestos-related diseases, and controls with high sensitivity.

The British Journal of Cancer also published a study last year about an artificial nose that can help discern between patients with head and neck cancer, those with lung cancer, and those without cancer using a breath test.

For more information about sleep apnea diagnosis and treatment, visit the American Sleep Apnea Association website.

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Technology

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.

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