LANL develops breath test for detecting fatigue

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LOS ALAMOS, N.M. — Los Alamos National Lab researchers are developing a breathalyzer that can determine how tired someone is.

The device works like other breathalyzers – including ones that measure alcohol. A person places their mouth on a device and exhales. Inside the device, sensors track the presence of certain molecules and other factors.

“Those molecules are then ionized and separated by their size and shape, and then they’re sent into the mass spectrometer,” biologist Zachary Sasiene said.

The machine uses the data to develop a “breath print.” Researchers say breath prints are unique to each person – similar to fingerprints – and reveal certain health characteristics.

Breath prints don’t reveal fatigue on their own though. Researchers need to collect and compare several breath prints to determine what a normal breath looks like.

“We can then compare like my breath trend in normal conditions to my breath print when I’m extremely fatigued then and see how those two different breath prints compared to each other,” Sasiene said.

Researchers are still wrapping up their initial study. They plan to fully test the technology in UNM Hospital’s emergency room next year. Developers have ambitious plans for how to use the technology in the real world.

“We want to be able to apply this to jobs that have cognitive decline, such as an ER doctor,” biologist Ethan McBride said. “For example, after an 18-hour shift, cognitive decline could lead to constant mistakes that we would like to try to prevent.”

The technology could also help save lives. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found roughly 13% of all semi-truck crashes involved driver fatigue.

Researchers suggest even more professions can benefit from fatigue-tracking technology.

“We can then take that and say, Okay, we need this person to take a break and relax before going back to work because we don’t want costly mistakes to occur,” Sasiene said.