£400,000 funding for revolutionary digital health project to treat dysfunctional breathing

The University of Plymouth is to work alongside three other institutions on a multidisciplinary research project seeking to improve the lives of those who suffer from dysfunctional breathing.

Around 10% of people in the UK are estimated to have some form of dysfunctional breathing, which can result in breathlessness, hyperventilation and dizziness. Learning to breathe correctly can also be a key part of managing other health conditions, such as asthma, back pain and anxiety – but current treatment is limited to simple breathing exercises.

Now, the £400,000 OptiMuscle project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will develop a new multimodal biofeedback system that will enable people to see and hear how their muscles are working as they inhale and exhale – and help them to learn how to ‘breathe better’.

OptiMuscle brings together researchers at Plymouth, with counterparts at the Universities of Salford and Stirling and the Glasgow School of Art. Professor Eduardo Miranda, Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, is lead investigator for Plymouth. He said:

“Currently in the UK, clinical assessments and treatments for dysfunctional breathing rely on visual assessments and breath-holding tests/questionnaires without validated tools to measure muscle patterns. By tapping into the visual and audio potential of digital technology, we can empower patients to change unhealthy behaviours and improve their breathing – while freeing up clinicians at the same time.”

The first stage of the project will work to develop software that can produce an avatar matched to the body shape of the user, which will be able to display geometrical changes in body shape during breathing.

Professor Miranda will then lead the participatory design of the biofeedback system that will provide real-time visualisation and sound to represent muscle patterns during breathing. Using 3D cameras and body sensors, patients will be able to see and hear their breathing on screen.

Initially, patients will be able to work with a physiotherapist, re-educating their muscles for effective breathing. But ultimately, the researchers are hoping that this will become a fully autonomous system, enabling patients to improve at home and reduce the time they spend in healthcare settings. It could also be used for a range of health conditions, including musculoskeletal pain, mobility in older people through to helping people manage anxiety-related disorders and even long Covid.

Dr Steve Preece, Research Centre Director at the University of Salford, the overall project lead, said:

“This new system could revolutionise the way in which we manage breathing disorders. It will give people a window into their body, allowing them to see in real-time how their breathing muscles work. In the future we hope to expand this approach so it could be used to treat other health conditions which are related to altered muscle functioning.”

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