Could mild electrical stimulation of a nerve that controls the tongue help to maintain a sleeper's airway, thus preventing obstructive sleep apnea? A team of researchers see potential in the therapy.
A device called the Inspire Upper Airway Stimulation System, similar in size and shape to a cardiac pacemaker and similarly implanted under the skin of the chest, includes electrode leads that are threaded up the throat to the hypoglossal nerve, where they pulse in synch with a patient's breathing cycle while he sleeps.
The intent? To restore muscle tone to the base of the tongue, preventing it from obstructing the airway during sleep. For a study published in the Jan. 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, sleep study researchers at facilities in the U.S. and Europe found that it decreased the incidence of apnea events and oxygen desaturation among a 126-patient sample (83% of whom were male, and all of whom had body-mass indexes of 32 or less).
"At a year following surgical implantation, patients experienced substantial decreases in the number of interruptions of sleep by apnea, and improvements in symptoms of waketime sleepiness, snoring and quality of life," says Kingman Strohl, MD, a pulmonologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center and professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.
The study's authors saw the implant, which is turned on before sleep and turned off after waking with a remote control, as a potential remedy for sufferers of moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea who cannot tolerate the masks used in continuous positive airway pressure therapy.