A UCLA Institute for Digital Research and Education report discusses the new technology in development that may aid patients with obstructive sleep apnea.

Imagine that before performing surgery doctors could consult software that would determine the actual effectiveness of the procedure before even lifting a scalpel. With the use of a computational model of the human airway being developed by Dr. Jeff D. Eldredge, a professor at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at UCLA, for people who suffer from sleep apnea such a scenario may be more than just an imagining.

Previously, Eldredge had been working on creating models that simulated the interactions between blood and vessel walls with Dr. Shao-Ching Huang from the UCLA Institute for Digital Research and Education (IDRE), which funded development of the computational tools for the project. He said that previous work was the impetus for his current work, which focuses on the problem of sleep apnea, or the repetitive or partial obstruction of the airway during sleep that can lead to problems like high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure.

Eldredge and his team worked closely with Dr. Sanjay Mallya, a faculty member in the UCLA School of Dentistry, as well as Dr. Susan White, a former medical resident. The dental school initially approached his team in order to test whether or not mandibular devices, or devices that open the airway by moving the lower jaw forward, would work without having to do expensive testing where patients would have to be sent home to test out the product for weeks at a time. The partnership has led to developing a tool that simulates air-tissue interactions in the upper airway of patients who suffer from sleep apnea. Parallel, high performance air flow simulation code, an essential piece of the tool, was developed primarily at IDRE by Dr. Huang.

The tool functions by mapping the geometry of the patient’s airway through the use of dental cone-beam CT scans, which allows researchers to simulate airflow inside 3-D models of the rigid upper airways of patients with obstructive sleep apnea. By tweaking the geometry of the model, such as shaving a little bit off a jaw bone in the simulation, Eldredge said the computation can show what effect surgery could have on a patient without actually operating.

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