A vibration-based therapy known as stochastic resonance stimulation can successfully treat preterm infants experiencing apnea of prematurity, characterized by disrupted breathing, slowed heart rate, and diminished oxygen levels, according to a study by a team of HMS researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Department of Neonatology, the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and collaborators at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Reported in the December 2015 issue of Pediatrics, the results show that infants’ apnea events decreased by half when babies were placed on specially developed mattresses that provided a gentle, soothing vibration similar to a light massage for alternating thirty-minute intervals over the course of three to four hours.
“This simple intervention made a huge difference,” says Vincent Smith, an HMS assistant professor of pediatrics, associate director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Beth Israel, and the paper’s lead author.
The nervous systems of infants born before 37 weeks’ gestation are functionally underdeveloped, and many preterm infants experience periods of apnea during which they briefly stop breathing or do not breathe deeply enough. These infants may also have reduced oxygen levels and slowed heart rates. To manage these symptoms, clinicians frequently treat preterm infants with caffeine, respiratory support, or both.
The researchers studied thirty-six preterm infants in Beth Israel’s neonatal unit. The infants were not receiving ventilation support and had exhibited slowed heart rate or diminished oxygen levels. The researchers placed the specially designed mattresses in the infants’ cribs and provided them with alternating thirty-minute intervals of on/off stimulation over several three- or four-hour study sessions. The research team simultaneously recorded the infants’ heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation levels. The researchers then randomized the protocol so that each infant served as his or her own control.
“We could see right away that the stochastic resonance stimulation was successful,” says Smith. “These results provide us with proof-of-concept that this approach may be a safe, noninvasive supplemental treatment option for preterm infants.”