Babalung Neonatal Monitor Could Save Preemies in Developing Countries

Babalung Neonatal Monitor Could Save Preemies in Developing Countries

HOUSTON – (April 12, 2012) – Rice University students have developed an inexpensive, battery-powered neonatal monitor for infants that could save many lives in the developing world.

Five bioengineering students created the Babalung Apnea Monitor for a yearlong senior capstone project that is required of all graduating engineering students at Rice. The device consists of a small electronic microcontroller connected to an adjustable strap with a stretch sensor.

Team Breath Alert – Rachel Alexander, Rachel Gilbert, Jordan Schermerhorn, Bridget Ugoh and Andrea Ulrich – began with the knowledge that nearly half of the 12 million babies born prematurely in developing countries experience episodes of apnea, a sudden stoppage of breathing. In general, a tap on the foot can prompt the child to resume breathing, but the widespread occurrence of the problem means there isn’t always someone available to administer that simple remedy.

The Babalung may be the next best thing, an ingenious combination of low- and high-tech that tries on its own to restart a baby’s breathing and raises a flag if it can’t, the students said.

The first line of defense is the elastic sensor contained within the strap surrounding the infant’s chest. “The strap expands and contracts, which the system sees as a sine wave,” said Ulrich. When the wave stops for 20 seconds, the attached microcontroller turns on a vibrating motor to prompt the infant to take a breath. If the child still isn’t breathing five seconds later, a visual alarm is triggered.

“We thought about an audio alarm, but there’s the risk that a nurse wouldn’t hear it in a large room. And an alarm loud enough to hear might damage the baby’s hearing,” Alexander said.

“So we went with a flashing bike light raised above the crib, so you can see it across a room,” Gilbert said. “Now we’re doing research into what frequencies of pulsation attract the most attention.”

“This team has worked tirelessly to design a useful technology for very-low-resource settings,” said Maria Oden, director of Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and an adviser to the team. “They sought feedback from physicians who work in those settings and incorporated this advice into their prototype. The unique feature of the device is the system that alerts a baby as an intervention to apnea — all without requiring a nurse to intervene.”

Gary Woods, a Rice professor in the practice of computer technology in the department of electrical and computer engineering, is also advising the team. Woods’ own students have designed a smartphone app to receive data from the device via Bluetooth.

The team hopes to send three prototypes for testing in developing nations through Beyond Traditional Borders, part of the Rice 360?: Institute for Global Health Technologies, this summer. But they envision uses for parents closer to home as well. While their primary goal is saving babies in developing countries, they would love to see Babalung on American shelves to give parents peace of mind.

“We did a survey in January, asking recent mothers whether or not they use a SIDS monitor or an apnea monitor for their infants, and if they did, what their biggest complaint was. The No. 1 complaint was the number of false alarms,” Alexander said.

In 50 tests that the students performed mostly on themselves, the Babalung gave no false alarms. “We caught every actual case of apnea,” Gilbert said. “We also learned how hard it is to stop breathing for 20 seconds.”

Team members said the device costs about $25 to build now, but they hope that continued development will drive the price down further for units bound to aid global health. “In developing nations, caregivers are so understaffed and overwhelmed that to provide something this simple feels like a straightforward solution,” Ugoh said.

Her incentive to join the project came from a place closer to her heart, though. “My sister had a baby last year, and she would stay up, not go to sleep, because she was worried whether her son was breathing or not,” Ugoh said. “I told her, ‘You know what? Next year I’m going to make you a device that detects breathing and will let you know.’ Lo and behold, this project was offered and it was on the top of my list.”

The public can meet Team Breath Alert this week at Rice’s UnConvention, April 12-14, when it competes for prizes of up to $5,000 in the annual George R. Brown School of Engineering Design Showcase, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 12 at Tudor Fieldhouse. The team will also be at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen open house April 14 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Apnea is common in premature infants, who often lack the neurological and muscular development to breathe correctly on their own. Nearly half of 12 million premature babies born in developing countries experience apneic episodes; cost, power, and personnel constraints in these settings motivated a desire to tackle this problem at a ward-based level, easing the burden on overworked healthcare professionals and providing long-term patient respiratory data to doctors. To solve this problem, Team Breath Alert has developed a low-cost, robust sensor to reliably detect respiratory rate of premature infants and monitor for apneic instances.

Design Summary

Maternal malnutrition is a major risk factor for premature delivery, and infants most at risk for apnea of prematurity – those in the developing world – are those who go most frequently unmonitored. Apnea monitors used in hospitals the United States are power-intensive and extraordinarily expensive, leaving primary health care centers in the developing world relying on nurses to keep vigil. These episodes frequently go undetected, as current diagnosis relies on constant observation – impossible in busy wards with such tremendously low nurse-to-patient ratios.

We have constructed a durable prototype capable of detecting apnea in premature infants for roughly $35, without reliance on a constant power supply. Our device consists of size-adjustable strap with a stretch sensor; an attached microcontroller contains position-calibrating software to track breaths, turn on a vibrating motor at 20 seconds without breathing, and to alert a nearby healthcare professional with a flashing light if breathing does not resume within 5 additional seconds. Our electronics also provide compatible docking with a system developed by a second senior design team to transmit information about patient health and apneic episodes to a central station (computer or smartphone) via low-power Bluetooth 4.0.

The modification central to our monitor is an automated treatment response to irregular breathing. Respiratory distress in premature infants usually results from neurological underdevelopment; our light vibration system activates a more conscious response, comparable to the current treatment of having a nurse tap the foot. The combination of diagnosis, treatment, and data collection saves lives while conserving the valuable time of nursing staffs strained far beyond capacity. Additionally, giving nurses the ability to identify infants in respiratory distress allows for patient triage, and logging respiratory rate automatically allows doctors and nurses to track a patient’s growth and disease progress over time.

Five bioengineering students from Rice University have designed a device that could potentially save six million lives. This number is half of the 12 million babies born prematurely in developing countries who experience episodes of apnea. Oftentimes, a gentle nudge or tap on the foot prompts the newborn to breathe again, but in developing countries where clinics are often understaffed to care for all the infants, even this simple act may come when it’s too late.

The device is called Babalung, and it consists of a small electronic microcontroller connected to an adjustable strap with a stretch sensor. Babalung features two lines of defense: the first uses the stretch sensor wrapped around the infant’s chest to monitor breathing. If 20 seconds goes by without the stretch sensor expanding or contracting, the microcontroller turns on a vibrating motor to prompt the infant to take a breath. The second line of defense occurs five seconds later if the infant has not resumed breathing; a flashing bike light raised above the crib will alert the nurse to give immediate medical attention. The infant’s respiratory data can also be sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone or computer for a physician to analyze if necessary.

The Rice students (called Team BreathAlert) focused heavily on designing Babalung specifically for developing countries, which is reflected in the device’s simple and low-tech, but effective design. Babalung is portable and battery-powered, unlike expensive and power-intensive neonatal apnea monitors commonly found in the U.S. and other developed countries. With a cost of less than $25, it’s a device that hopefully can be used all over the world.

Source : http://news.rice.edu/2012/04/12/babalung-gets-babies-breathing-again/

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