Strange, robotic bed fellow for snorers

Snoring is annoying…usually for one’s bed partner, but the darker side of snoring, sleep apnea where breathing actually stops during sleep rather than simply rattling the tissues in the nose and throat can be a serious health threat linked to tiredness the next day and an increased risk of high blood pressure. Now, a team in Japan describes a computer-controlled robotic arm that detects when a person is in a mild or moderate sleep apnea situation and gives them a gentle nudge to prompt them to turn over in their sleep. The usual nocturnal remedy for the condition.

Kazuya Sato and Masahiro Tanaka of Saga University explain that sleep apnea syndrome (SAS) is a serious, but little understood condition. It is known that the tongue of sufferers occludes the back of the throat, however, hindering breathing and thus reducing the supply of oxygen. For people who sleep on their backs and suffer mild apnea they might have 5 to 20 episodes during the night, 21 to 50 is considered moderate and above 50 severe. The biggest risk is to the person driving or operating machinery the next day with those suffering severe SAS having a greater risk of a road traffic accident than people who do not suffer SAS.

Risk factors for SAS itself are the usual suspects for many conditions: smoking, heavy drinking and being overweight. And should someone present particular symptoms or have second-hand reporting of SAS, a doctor will usually advise abstinence from smoking, a reduction in alcohol intake and weight loss. Unfortunately, such a prescription is not immediately effective and a person may continue to suffer symptoms and run the risk of that road traffic accident due to tiredness and nocturnal oxygen deprivation.

The simplest remedy is to not sleep on one’s back, if one suffers SAS. Of course, one’s sleeping habits are not easily disrupted especially as a habitual supine sleeper may revert to that lying posture while asleep and thus induce an apnea condition.

Sato and Tanaka’s webcam and microphone system simply monitors the SAS patient and detects automatically when they are lying on their back and begin to snore prior to the onset of an apnea condition. The robotic arm then reaches out and nudges them. This either wakes the patient so that they can roll on to their side or else triggers an unconscious turn in their sleep; rescuing them either way from the apnea condition. The robotic arm demonstrated by the team is incorporated into a pillow and does not otherwise intrude on one’s sleeping habits.

Of course, for those enforced insomniacs who suffer noisy and sleepless nights because of a snoring partner, the developers might be persuaded to offer an option on their robotic arm that gives the snorer a good hard jab in the ribs periodically and when the snoring reaches its peak.

Sato, K. and Tanaka, M. (2015) ‘Sleep apnea syndrome prevention system using a robotic arm with adaptive control’, Int. J. Advanced Mechatronic Systems, Vol. 6, No. 4, pp.184–192.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.