The Nov. 1 issue of the journal Sleep contains the first reported study of “thermal infrared imaging” to monitor airflow during an overnight sleep study. Can this technology be used to detect obstructive sleep apnea?
Typically, contact sensors are placed around your nose and mouth to measure airflow during a sleep study. The authors report that these sensors and wires may cause discomfort during sleep.
The advantage of thermal infrared imaging is that it uses “non-contact” sensing to detect airflow abnormalities. It is unobtrusive and doesn’t touch your body while you sleep.
The automatic thermal monitoring system (ATHEMOS) uses an infrared camera to record your sleep from a distance. It acquires thermal information as heat radiates from your nostrils.
The thermal signature of the nostrils varies. It is cooler as you inhale, and warmer as you exhale air from the lungs. This thermal signal provides information about your breathing.
But is it effective? The small pilot study found a high degree of agreement between thermal infrared imaging and conventional airflow sensors.
But the system wasn’t tested during a full night of sleep. The average recording time was less than two hours per person.
This is because the method produces massive data sets. Recording a full night of sleep would require an investment in upgraded computer systems for data management and storage.
Thermal infrared imaging also involves another major expense: the camera. The authors note that an entry-level, thermal camera can cost about $60,000 at this time.
The benefit of this system is that it doesn’t require the sterilization or replacement of sensors; this minimizes the operating costs over time.
The automatic thermal monitoring system is a unique prototype that is still in development. The authors are optimistic that it could be useful in the detection of obstructive sleep apnea. But much more testing is needed to validate its effectiveness.