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Neonatal monitor 'Babalung' could save preemies

The battery-powered apnea monitor alerts caregivers if a newborn stops breathing.

Bioengineering students at Rice University have designed a $25 sleep apnea detector they hope to test on premature babies in developing countries this summer.

The students hope their bike light alarm will alert caregivers when an infant has stopped breathing. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

The Babalung Apnea Monitor was designed by Team Breath Alert-- a group of five female bioengineering undergrads as part of their senior year project. The project was inspired by estimates that almost half of babies born prematurely have apnea episodes and that caregivers in developing countries are less able to monitor them in neonatal units due to crowding and limited resources.

The system uses an elastic motion sensor embedded in a strap that surrounds the infant's chest. The expanding and contracting of the strap is interpreted as a sine wave. If the wave stops for 20 seconds, the device attempts to prompt breathing via a microcontroller that vibrates.

If after another five seconds this vibration does not prompt the infant to breathe, the monitor triggers a flashing bike light hovering above the crib to alert caregivers.

"We thought about an audio alarm, but there's the risk that a nurse wouldn't hear it in a large room," bioengineering senior Rachel Alexander said in a Rice news release. "And an alarm loud enough to hear might damage the baby's hearing."

The team is currently researching which frequencies of pulsating light attract the most attention and is also working to bring the production price down below $25 so that the device is affordable in places where current apnea monitors aren't.

The students also hope to test three prototypes via Rice's Beyond Traditional Borders program over the summer, but they see a place for their invention in the U.S. as well. Over the course of 50 self-administered tests in which the researchers monitored themselves, the team says its system detected every instance of sleep apnea (students held their breath for 20 seconds or more) and not a single false alarm was triggered.