A team of students at Rice University has engineered the Babalung, a monitor that prompts premature infants who suffer from apnea to start breathing again and gives a visual alarm if they don’t. From left: Andrea Ulrich, Bridget Ugoh, Rachel Gilbert, Jordan Schermerhorn and Rachel Alexander. Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University
University students have developed an inexpensive, battery-powered
neonatal monitor for infants that could save many lives in the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 are designing a smartphone app to receive data
from the device via Bluetooth.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Source: Rice University