Researchers have developed an electronic nose that can detect whether a person has obstructive sleep apnea.

The electronic nose will change the way the disease is detected, German researchers say. Currently, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is diagnosed after an overnight sleep test that is expensive and time-consuming. The new nose works by detecting the presence of certain molecules in the patient's exhaled breath. Sleep apnea is associated with inflammation in the upper airways. The electronic nose picks up molecules that are present when there is an inflammation.

The device was tested on 60 people, of which 40 had OSA. Researchers tested the accuracy of the electronic nose in detecting the disease. Researchers also used the device to measure any improvements in the patients' condition.

The participants were given questionnaires and a standard sleep test to assess their condition. Results of standard tests were then matched against those obtained from measurements using the electronic nose. Result analysis showed that the electronic nose detected the presence of sleep apnea with a sensitivity of 93 percent.

"This is the first time an electronic nose has been tested in the setting of sleep apnoea diagnosis," said lead author of the study Dr. Timm Greulich from the Marburg Hospital in Germany.

Dr. Greulich added that the device can rule out the disease in low-risk populations and in populations that have a risk of developing sleep apnea; the device can be used to decide who needs a complete check-up for sleep apnea.

"Following these results, we foresee that the use of an electronic nose could reduce costs by more appropriately selecting patients who require the sleep examination," Dr. Greulich said.

Obstructive sleep apnea causes many health complications and increases risk for stroke, depression, and irregular heartbeat. Interrupted sleep can also result in drowsiness during the day. People who do not get to sleep for 8 hours at night are at increased risk for car crashes, work related injuries and other accidents. Poor sleep for longer durations can also lead to cognitive decline.

Mild cases of sleep apnea can be treated with behavioral changes while moderate to severe ones require the use of C-PAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a progressive condition and can get worse with age.

"This is an interesting study, adding to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that electronic noses are a future potential tool for the detection of respiratory diseases. Although the results are encouraging, it is important to acknowledge the limitations in this kind of statistical analysis and it is not yet definite proof that this is an accurate diagnostic tool," said Ramon Farre, European Respiratory Journal Associate Editor.