Do you have sleep apnea? UW smartphone app can tell.

“It’s similar to the way bats navigate,” scientist says.

Smartphones already have the ability to monitor human health. Apps these days can track the amount of calories burned throughout the day, determine a user’s heart rate and follow one’s sleeping patterns.iphone6-inline

Now, a new app in the development stage at the University of Washington can wirelessly detect sleep apnea episodes, potentially saving those who suffer from the sleep disorder thousands of dollars.

Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder that is commonly caused by blockage of the airway (obstructive sleep apnea) or the brain failing to signal muscles to breath during sleep (central sleep apnea). Obstructive sleep apnea, which is much more common, affects roughly 25 million Americans.

How the app works:

There are home sleep apnea tests that function similarly, but the new app, named ApneaApp, uses sonar technology to track breathing patterns without a person having to sleep amidst a tangle of wires and sensors.

ApneaApp sends inaudible sound waves from the phone’s speaker that bounce off people in their sleep to track miniscule changes in their breathing pattern. The returning sound waves are then picked up by the phone’s microphone.

“It’s similar to the way bats navigate,” said Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, lead author and a Ph.D. student in the UW’s department of computer science and engineering. “They send out sound signals that hit a target, and when those signals bounce back they know something is there.”

Since sound wave patterns can change due to distance, the app is able to distinguish between the breathing patterns of two different people sleeping side by side. It efficiently traces breathing patterns from distances up to three feet, so users can place their smartphones at their bedside tables, as they normally would. Regardless of one’s sleeping position, ApneaApp can track breathing patterns—even when the person is underneath a blanket.

The high frequency of the app’s emitted sound waves, which adults cannot hear, means that other audible sounds, such as talking, fans and street noise aren’t picked up by the microphone. And while children may hear ApneaApp’s high-pitched sound waves, researchers are developing a newer version with sound waves that will be inaudible to all humans.

Researchers believe the app could be available to smartphone users within the next two years.

Posted on May 4, 2015 | By Kyle Jensen