OSAKA — A new sensor developed by Sanyo Electric Co. could help people with sleep apnea, and may eventually regulate the environment in which one sleeps.

The sensor can measure the heart rate and number of breaths sleeping people take, without using special devices or body attachments.

The conventional approach measures the heart rate via several wires attached to the body, while breaths are counted using a restraining belt around the chest. Usually only medical institutions gather such data.

Sanyo official Yoshihisa Fujiwara said the new sensor is portable and nonrestraining, and thus can be used at home.

The sheet-shaped sensor is 60 cm long, 10 cm wide and 0.3 cm thick. It can be placed under sheets so that the user hardly notices it.

Details of the sensor’s mechanism have yet to be publicized, but it basically consists of an insulator sheet with two electrodes that pick up even the slightest body vibrations and turn them into electric signals, according to Fujiwara.

The sensor has yet to be commercialized due to lingering doubts about its durability and the reliability of the data it collects, but the sensing system has been established, he said.

The device, linked to a monitor at a hospital, can be used to keep watch on a patient’s condition, he said, noting that several medical institutions have inquired about it.

Sleep apnea syndrome has been associated with a number of complications.

Researchers have learned that patients with the disorder are two to three times more likely to suffer high blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.

Fujiwara’s research department has long studied ways to measure various data on humans, including monitoring body temperature and palm sweat.

“In a few years, the sensor could be commercialized in combination with household appliances so that users’ sleeping data could automatically control the appliances to make a more comfortable environment,” he said.

“What we have in mind is creating personalized home appliances that suit each user, sensing individual body conditions, and controlling and adjusting themselves. For example, a light that turns off when a user falls asleep and an air conditioner that adjusts room temperature in accordance with the user’s sleeping condition.”

Currently, the sensor can tell if the user is asleep by monitoring breathing and heart-rate data. The sensor does not gauge the depth of sleep.

Fujiwara said his research team is now working on a system to measure the depth of sleep, and he is confident this will be achieved in the near future.

“I don’t think there is any electronic product on the market that measures sleep,” he said. “I believe the business potential is very high.”

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