A new innovative way to treat the dangerous pauses in breathing during sleep has come in the form of a printed mouthpiece. The Australian dental company Oventus and researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) collaborated to come up with a customized mouthpiece manufactured with a 3D printer, that can prevent breathing pauses known as sleep apnea.

"When Oventus came to CSIRO with this idea, we were really excited. The possibilities of 3D printing are endless and the fact that we can now design and print a completely customized mouthpiece for patients is revolutionary," said John Barnes, CSIRO's 3D printing expert.

The invention of 3D printing has opened doors for many new inventions and process simplifications, and works by laying down thin layers of a material until it builds into a three-dimensional solid object. The machine bases the process off of a specific digital design, which Oventus CEO Neil Anderson believes was the key to their new 3D treatment.

The finished product is printed from titanium and coated with a medial grade plastic, which looks much like a retainer. It extends from the user’s mouth like a whistle and divides up separate airways in order to channel airflow into the back of the throat. The air will be directed around the obstructive nose and partial throat collapse, to where it can travel down the trachea and avoid the nightly sleep apnea choking.

"This new device is tailored to an individual's mouth using a 3D scan and is used only on the top teeth which make it more compact and far more comfortable,” Anderson said.

An apnea is a 90 percent reduction of airflow caused by the collapse of soft tissue in the back of the throat, which blocks the airway and can last from a few seconds to minutes each time. Throughout the night, the body struggles to push against the closed airway until the person is forced into light enough sleep in order to regain muscle tone and reopen the airway. This can occur as often as 50 to 100 times per hour, which is a cycle of constant unconscious re-awakening throughout the night.

It is estimated that 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, which can lead to long-term problems that pose more severe health consequences, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and weight gain due to the constant constriction of oxygen to the body throughout the night.

Chronic sleep deprivation results in daytime sleepiness, slower reflexes, poor concentration, and increased risk of car accidents. Between 50 and 70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders, according to the National Sleep Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization established in 1990 to collect and educate sleep research for the general public.

Manufacturers of sleep-disorder diagnostic and therapy products have profited from the growth in sleep disorders over the last 20 years. Treatments such as the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask that uses air pressure to keep airways open throughout the night, or pediatric palate expanders to create more space in children’s mouths while they sleep, are common approaches to sleep apnea treatment. However, most turn to oral devices to move the lower jaw forward and open up the airway, which is similar to what Oventus and their team has invented.

Manufacturers had combined revenue of $1.3 billion last year for in the United States, according to international market research firm InMedica. In addition, Americans spent $1.7 billion on prescription sleep-aid drugs in 2011, a quick and temporary solution to an often-bigger problem that needs proper evaluation by a sleep physician.

"The new 3D printed mouthpiece bypasses all obstructions by having airways that deliver air to the back of the throat and it will also stop patients from snoring," Anderson said.

Sleep has taken on a forefront in medical discovery, as researchers try to unweave the intricate interplay of brain functions, immune system, respiration, cardiovascular health, blood pressure, appetite and mental health. Scientists are just starting to grasp the extent to which our health depends on the length and quality of rest we give our bodies.

"It's an exciting prospect for people suffering from the debilitating disorder and the design offers significant benefits which cannot be achieved with more traditional manufacturing techniques," Barnes said.

Sleep typically takes up about a third of every day, which means the average person who lives to be 90 years old, will spend over 30 years of it asleep. Hopefully the new 3D device, which is expected to be available to patients next year, will provide treatment for better sleep quality.