Biodesign fellows develop a device for relieving night terrors

An interdisciplinary team is working toward a solution to help children with night terrors — and their parents — get a more peaceful night’s rest.

- By Emily Hite

Andy Rink, left, and Varun Boriah have designed a device that uses precisely timed vibrations to get children suffering from night terrors in a healthy sleep pattern.

Norbert von der Groeben

Night terrors, a sleep disorder affecting mostly young children, do not pose a serious health threat and typically subside with age. But for the parents of kids who experience them, much sleep can be lost in the meantime.

That’s what Andy Rink, MD, observed when he visited family members last year and woke up to a 3-year-old relative’s nightly screams. The exhaustion the child’s parents faced from months of disrupted sleep took a toll on their daytime functioning.

As fellows in the Stanford Biodesign Program, Rink, a surgical resident at Northwestern University, and Varun Boriah, MS, an engineer and former CEO of a blood-diagnostics company, teamed up to develop a method for treating the disorder. 

Those experiencing night terrors, which generally occur during the first part of the sleep cycle, may scream and thrash about in episodes lasting 10 to 20 minutes. They appear awake while remaining unresponsive to communication. Parents or caretakers who wake up to stay with a child during an episode can undergo stress and loss of sleep. 

Good vibrations

Rink and Boriah have developed a device that uses precisely timed vibrations to get children suffering from sleep terrrors into a healthy sleep pattern. It is about the size of a laptop and is placed under the mattress.

The physician and the engineer are working with School of Medicine sleep researchers Christian Guilleminault, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Shannon Sullivan, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, on a clinical study to test the device’s effectiveness. They’re currently recruiting participants ages 2-12 for their study.

Guilleminault, a pioneer in understanding night terrors, and Sullivan, a newer faculty member with a specific interest in childhood sleep disorders, have worked closely with Rink and Boriah, provided clinical expertise to the team and are the principal investigators for the study. Guilleminault and Sullivan won faculty mentor awards from the Biodesign Program for their research and guidance on this project.

Clinical realities

Boriah said the Biodesign Program has provided valuable “access to clinical reality.” Rink said that as a fellow, he’s been “exposed to a side you don’t see in a hospital.” 

Each year, Biodesign, which is part of the university’s interdisciplinary Bio-X institute, selects 12 applicants for 10-month fellowships in medical-device innovation. Biodesign fellows work in teams of two or four. Each fellow flags about 50 observed clinical needs while shadowing health-care workers for four to six weeks. Then, each team considers the 100 to 200 — or more — needs that have been identified and eliminates all but one during four to five rounds of cutting. (Rink added that the process is “more off-script than that,” and each team’s timeline is different.) 

Once a team has focused on a clinical need, they “flare out,” brainstorming “tens to hundreds of ideas for solutions” and “letting the ways of doing it compete,” Boriah said. The teams attempt to solve — in a novel, data-supported way — a health-care problem that may affect patients or providers, or drive down costs or improve the efficiency of health-care delivery. The fellows have access to faculty mentors across the Stanford campus and outside experts who provide advice to the teams.

Rink and Boriah had their Biodesign fellowships extended through mid-September — fellows normally leave the program in June — based on the promising nature of their project. They also have been accepted into StartX, a startup accelerator program in Palo Alto for Stanford-affiliated entrepreneurs, where they are continuing their project. The ultimate goal, they say, is to help millions of kids, and their parents, get a more peaceful night’s rest.

About Stanford Medicine

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2024 ISSUE 1

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