22 February 2012

Smartphones to prevent substance abuse

Clinical researchers are combining an innovative technologies such as artificial intelligence and smartphone programming to develop a device designed to detect drug cravings.


Clinical researchers are combining an innovative constellation of technologies such as artificial intelligence, smartphone programming, biosensors and wireless connectivity to develop a device designed to detect physiological stressors associated with drug cravings and respond with user-tailored behavioural interventions that prevent substance use. Preliminary data about the multi-media device, called iHeal, was published online first in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

According to the study's authors, many behavioural interventions used to treat patients are ineffective outside of the controlled clinical settings where they are taught. This failure can be attributed to several factors, including a patient's inability to recognise biological changes that indicate increased risk of relapse and an inability to change their behaviours to reduce health risk.

DR Edward Boyer, a professor of emergency medicine at UMass Medical School and lead author of the study, worked with colleagues at UMMS and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to design a mobile device using so-called "enabling technologies" that could be used to make behavioural interventions for substance abusers more effective outside the clinic or office environments.

The result of their work, iHeal, combines sensors to measure physiological changes and detect trigger points for risky health behaviours, such as substance use, with smartphone software tailored to respond with patient-specific interventions.

The study

Individuals with a history of substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder were asked to wear an iHeal sensor band around their wrist that measures the electrical activity of the skin, body motion, skin temperature and heart rate – all indicators of stress.

The band wirelessly transmits information to a smartphone, where software applications monitor and process the user's physiological data. When the software detects an increased stress level, it asks the user to annotate events by inputting information about their perceived level of stress, drug cravings, and current activities.

This information is then used to identify, in real-time, drug cravings and deliver personalised, multimedia drug prevention interventions precisely at the moment of greatest physiological need.

Boyer and his teams examined the iHeal system architecture, as well as preliminary feedback from initial users, to identify key attributes and assess the device's viability. Their analyses suggest a number of technical issues related to data security, as well as the need for a more robust and less stigmatising version before the device could be worn in public.

(EurekAlert, February 2012)


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