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Computer monitors apnea during sleep

An ancient myth told of the plight of Undine, a nymph condemned to a life of sleeplessness out of fear she would stop breathing while asleep and die. Modern science calls it sleep apnea.

The ailment -- an interruption of breathing during sleep -- also is known as ''Undine's Curse,'' and it afflicts a large number of middle-aged, overweight men, many who unknowingly suffer the condition.

Sleep apnea goes all the way back to Greek mythology. We're finally getting the upper hand on it by diagnosing those who didn't even know they were affected.

The condition also has been diagnosed in infants who can be aroused from lapses in breathing by being shaken, an action that doctors say awakens the baby and forces the brain to message the lungs to begin functioning again. Sleep apnea in the case of infants is the cause of sudden infant death syndrome, for which there is no known cure.

The condition now is being diagnosed with the help of a computer and electrodes that monitor patients at home while they sleep. The computer, in use at several medical centres around the country, is among the most accurate of devices capable of monitoring the sometimes life-threatening disorder, Johns explained.

The system uses a mesh halter to which electrodes are fixed and stuck on the chests of patients to measure a series of vital functions, including the length of time between breaths.

The halter and electrodes are placed on the patient at the clinic and worn home. At night, while the patient sleeps, the electrodes are plugged into a small box that records the patient's sleep patterns.

The system measures heart rate, lung function, oxygen saturation in the blood and paradoxing which is the opposite movement of chest and abdomen.

He said the monitoring box is brought back to the clinic the next morning, at which time the data collected during the night is fed into and analyzed by a computer.

If the patient is apneic, the computer might show decreased respiration during sleep, a decrease in heart rate and a desaturation of oxygen in the blood stream.

The operation is similar to a tonsilectomy and involves removal of tissue at the back of the throat, which enlarges air passages to enable unobstructed breathing. Other surgical methods also successfully treat sleep apnea caused by nasal deformity or nasal polyps.

The computerized diagnostic method also helps determine if the patient suffers from other types of sleeping and breathing disorders, primarily central nervous system dysfunction in which the brain is not telling the lungs and diaphragm to move.

Next: Focus on sleep - treatment for apnea