Breathing problems, stemming from conditions like sleep apnea, COPD, and asthma, impose significant burdens on patients. Sleep apnea disrupts sleep with breathing pauses, leading to fatigue. COPD, a progressive lung disease often caused by exposure to irritants, restricts daily activities due to breathing difficulties. Asthma, marked by airway inflammation, results in recurrent wheezing and breathlessness.
These conditions not only affect physical health but also impact patients emotionally and reduce overall quality of life. Monitoring is crucial for understanding disease progression and optimizing treatment. Regular assessments, such as lung function tests for COPD and peak flow measurements for asthma, allow healthcare professionals to tailor interventions, providing personalized care and alleviating the burdens associated with these respiratory conditions. Timely adjustments to treatment plans can significantly improve the well-being of individuals grappling with these challenges.
The smart pill (📷: G. Traverso et al.)
Unfortunately, these tests generally require a trip to the clinic, making them inconvenient and expensive. As such, they can only provide a small amount of data periodically. Some testing, like the sleep tests frequently conducted to test for sleep apnea, can be particularly inconvenient, requiring an overnight stay at a clinic and the use of uncomfortable monitoring equipment. Ideally, a constant stream of data would be collected as an individual goes about their normal, daily activities. This type of information would be of much greater value to physicians as they work to improve the lives of their patients.
A group led by researchers at MIT recently reported on the development of an ingestible electronic device that can capture exactly this type of data. The tiny pill is packed with electronics and has been proven to be capable of detecting episodes of abnormal breathing as it makes its way through the digestive tract. All the patient needs to do is swallow it, just like any other pill.
The smart pill used in this study was developed by Celero Systems. Packed inside the tiny package — about the size of a typical multivitamin — is a microcontroller, batteries, antenna for wireless communications, and an accelerometer. The accelerometer is the critical piece of hardware in this device. It captures all of the subtle movements made by the body, which can be interpreted by an algorithm to infer a variety of vital sign measurements. In particular, the team focused on detecting the expansion of the lungs to determine when a patient, for example, stops breathing due to an episode of sleep apnea.
For the first time ever, the researchers conducted a small clinical study of a device of this type in humans. Ten participants were selected for the trial with the goal of evaluating them for the nighttime breathing interruptions that are characteristic of sleep apnea. A total of 57 hours of data was collected, which was wirelessly streamed to an external receiver. While the most prominent signal received from the pill resulted from the normal, involuntary movements of the intestine, respiratory signals were also clearly visible. And although it was not directly relevant to this study, it was noted that the beating of the heart could also be deciphered.
By checking the data from the pill against traditional methods of monitoring breathing, it was shown that the new technology could recognize episodes in which individuals with sleep apnea stop breathing at night. The team noted that this same capability could be used to monitor other conditions, or even check for depressed breathing patterns that are characteristic of drug overdoses. In the future, the team plans to explore the possibility of leveraging the pill to administer drugs that can reverse the effects of an overdose when a breathing problem is detected.