Technology to Improve Ability program funds sleep apnea device

MIT and Veteran's Affairs team creating a mouthpiece to treat common sleep disorder
woman yawning

In collaboration with the Alana Down Syndrome Center at MIT, the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation offers a grant program: Technology to Improve Ability (TTIA).

The mission of the TTIA program is to commercialize technology that will improve the quality of life for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities. The Deshpande Center assists MIT faculty and students in commercializing their technologies, taking promising ideas and innovations and turning them into products and services. While the focus is to help people with Down syndrome, the innovations are also likely to aid a much broader population.

The TTIA program continues to fund a project to create a better means of treating obstructive sleep apnea for people with Down syndrome. The project team was funded for its second year through the TTIA program.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common, chronic health condition in which repetitive collapse of the throat muscles results in episodic obstruction of breathing called apnea. The most common location for obstruction is where the tongue meets the soft palate at the back of the throat. OSA results in poor sleep quality and is associated with serious health consequences. It is common in the Down syndrome (DS) population, affecting 50% of children and almost all those in adulthood.

Team member Tarsha Ward presents at a Deshpande IdeaStream event

The device combines a customized small oral prosthesis with low suction to hold the tongue to the top of the mouth, clearing the airway. Standard treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which requires users to wear a mask at night while a pump pushes air into their nose and/or mouth. The masks are difficult to fit, particularly for people with non-standard face shapes, are not very comfortable, and the pump is loud. Half of CPAP users discontinue use by a year, and users with DS have significantly lower rates of compliance. The need for an alternative treatment is great.

In the past year, the team refined designs for its mouth prosthesis and began testing the comfort and wearability of the device in a preliminary trial with MIT volunteers. The results will set the stage for a larger clinical trial to be conducted early next year among patients with sleep apnea at Boston Veterans Affairs Healthcare.