Harvard's Wyss Institute successfully tests vibration-based infant apnea prevention device

Mattress vibration device--Courtesy of University of Massachusetts

Apnea, or a prolonged pause in breathing, is quite common among premature and low-birth-weight infants and can be life-threatening. A trial at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 36 infants with apnea of a new mattress vibration device cut the number of apnea events in half. It also improved the infant's oxygenation levels and incidents of a too-slow heart rate.

Researchers expect that the new technology, which doesn't even wake the infants, could be used in combination with standard-of-care caffeine therapy or be used on its own as a standalone apnea preventative. The device was conceived at the UMass Medical School and developed at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

Dr. David Paydarfar

"Apneic breathing and its associated risks is a major challenge in NICUs today, and can also lead to prolonged and expensive hospital stays. This prompted us to develop a non-invasive, non-pharmacological solution that can address the immature respiratory control in these premature infants," Dr. David Paydarfar, vice chair and professor of neurology at UMass, Wyss associate faculty member and scientific lead on the apnea prevention program, said in a statement.

The researchers applied alternating 30-minute intervals of therapeutic mattress vibrations with the same period of no vibration. They then compared apnea-related measures during each period. This was in a group of 36 infants, all of whom has experienced apnea at least once. During the treatment period, apnea was reduced by 50% while almost every clinically related measure, such as oxygen saturation and heart rate, were improved.

This is the latest iteration of the mattress vibration technology that reduces vibrations near the infant's head. It was born out of the notion of stochastic resonance, which holds that the interference of a small amount of 'noise' in a complex biological system can increase the sensitivity of it. In the U.S., about 1 in 9 infants is born prematurely. More than half of infants born before 37 weeks old and almost all of those with a very low birth weight have incidents of apnea, defined as a pausing in breathing of at least 20 seconds. These episodes can lead to brain damage or loss of life.

"By de-risking the infant apnea prevention technology, the Wyss Institute and its clinical partners have now advanced it to the stage at which it can be more widely tested and eventually deployed in hospital NICUs," said Wyss Institute Founding Director Dr. Don Ingber. "The findings exemplify once more how our translation engine can provide finely tailored solutions that may impact areas of clinical need."

- here is the announcement and the paper