Tuesday, 02 September 2014
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Mobile device could help drug users modify their behaviour

Technologies such as artificial intelligence and biosensors have been combined to create a wearable device to help substance abusers to modify their behaviour positively.

Developed by clinical researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), the device also incorporates smartphone programming and wireless connectivity to detect physiological indications of drug cravings. It then responds with user-tailored behavioural interventions designed to prevent substance use.

Preliminary data about the multimedia device, called iHeal, was first published online 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.

In a statement, they said that this failure can be attributed to several factors, including a patient’s inability to recognise biological changes that indicate an increased risk of relapse and an inability to change his or her behaviours to reduce health risk.

Edward Boyer, professor of emergency medicine at UMMS and lead author of the study, worked with colleagues at UMMS and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design a mobile device 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 to detect trigger points for risky health behaviours, such as substance use, with smartphone software tailored to respond with patient-specific interventions.

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 to deliver personalised, multimedia drug prevention interventions precisely at the moment of greatest physiological need.

Boyer and his team examined the iHeal system architecture, as well as preliminary feedback from initial users, to identify key attributes and to 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.


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