MIT tests new ingestible sensor that records your breathing through your intestines

The ‘smart capsule’ is designed to monitor vital signs and even detect opiate overdose.

Celero Systems

MIT researchers developed an ingestible capsule that can monitor vital signs including heart rate and breathing patterns from within a patient’s GI tract. The scientists also say that the novel device has the potential to also be used to detect signs of respiratory depression during an opioid overdose. Giovanni Traverso, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT who has been working on developing a range of ingestible sensors, told Engadget that the device will be especially useful for sleep studies.

Conventionally, sleep studies require patients to be hooked up to a number of sensors and devices. In labs and in at-home studies, sensors can be attached to a patient’s scalp, temples, chest and lungs with wires. A patient may also wear a nasal cannula, chest belt and pulse oximeter which can connect to a portable monitor. “As you can imagine, trying to sleep with all of this machinery can be challenging,” Traverso told Engadget.

Clear pill tab
Clear pill tab (MIT)

This trial, which used a capsule made by Celero Systems —A start-up led by MIT and Harvard researchers— marks the first time ingestible sensor technology was tested in humans. Aside from the start-up and MIT, the research was spearheaded by experts at West Virginia University and other hospital affiliates.

The capsule contains two small batteries and a wireless antenna that transmits data. The ingestible sensor, which is the size of a vitamin capsule, traveled through the gastrointestinal tract, and collected signals from the device while it was in the stomach. The participants stayed at a sleep lab overnight while the device recorded respiration, heart rate, temperature and gastric motility. The sensor was also able to detect sleep apnea in one of the patients during the trial. The findings suggest that the ingestible was able to measure health metrics on par with medical-grade diagnostic equipment at the sleep center. Traditionally, patients that need to get diagnosed with specific sleep disorders are required to stay overnight at a sleep lab, where they get hooked onto an array of sensors and devices. Ingestible sensor technology eliminates the need for that.

Importantly, MIT says there were no adverse effects reported due to capsule ingestion. The capsule typically passes through a patient within a day or so, though that short internal shelf life may also limit how effective it could be as a monitoring device. Traverso told Engadget that he aims to have Celetro, which he co-founded, eventually contain a mechanism that will allow the capsule to sit in a patient’s stomach for a week.

Dr. Ali Rezai, the executive chair of the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, said that there is a huge potential for creating a new pathway through this device that will help providers identify when a patient is overdosing according to their vitals. In the future, researchers even anticipate that devices could incorporate drugs internally: overdose reversal agents, such as nalmefene, could be slowly administered if a sensor records that a person’s breathing rate slowed or stopped. More data from the studies will be made available in the coming months.