What if Your Fitness Tracker Could Predict Relapse?
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What if Your Fitness Tracker Could Predict Relapse?


Fitness Tracker Could Predict RelapseFitness trackers are everywhere—you probably have one on your holiday gift list, your wrist or in your junk drawer (where’s that damn charger?). They are supposed to help wearers move their bodies more, get better sleep and improve their overall health. But what if a fitness tracker could predict relapse in recovering addicts? New research, coupled with a multi-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggests this technology is coming soon to a rehab near you.

According to a recent article in the MIT Technology Review, a research project called MD2K, which stands for Mobile Sensor Data to Knowledge (no wonder they needed an acronym), won more than $10 million from the NIH to take wearable sensor tech to the next level. The MD2K team includes researchers from 12 large universities, including Cornell, Northwestern and UCLA, and the grant will help the organization develop software that compiles and analyzes health data generated by wearable sensors. But the vision of MD2K goes beyond just tracking exercise and sleep patterns, as the ultimate goal is to use these sensors to anticipate and prevent “adverse health events,” such as addiction relapse.

Coming Soon

Wearable biosensors are nothing new. They have been used in clinical settings for several years to detect stress, seizures and other dire health issues. Though the new MD2K project is aimed at researchers and clinicians, its tools are open-source—which means they’re freely available for other companies to adapt for their own purposes.  In other words, it’s only a matter of time before manufacturers like Apple, Garmin and Samsung could use the project’s designs to build similar sensors and apps for their own wearable devices.

If you’re wondering how this could translate into helping addicts, here’s the idea: Imagine enrolling in a drug treatment program where you’re issued a wristband. The biosensors will measure your average heart rate, temperature and perspiration, and the GPS tracks your location at all times. You consent to being tracked by your doctor or primary therapist, with whom you set up an emergency action plan. One day you’re wearing your wristband when you run into an old dealer. You receive an invite to go back to to your former den of iniquity to get high. As you drive across town and anticipate using drugs, your pulse quickens, you start to sweat and then your cellphone rings. It’s your therapist, who just received an alert from your wristband. The data shows you are in danger, your geolocation indicates you are in a neighborhood you flagged as off-limits and your physiological measurements indicate stress. Bam! The spell is broken.

How it Works

This scenario may seem a little far out but the pilot study, published in March 2015 in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, which helped secure the dough from NIH, analyzed four supervised drug users who wore wrist sensors before, during and after drug use. It measured heartbeat, motion, skin electrical conductance and skin temperature up to 30 times per second, kept track of the wearer’s location using GPS and stored up to four days of data, which was streamed directly to smart phones or computers via Bluetooth.

Data from drug use in the first five test subjects revealed a unique signature for each type of drug. For example, cocaine was accompanied by what the head researcher described as a “hurricane” of movement. (This surely comes as no surprise to anybody who’s ever frantically cleaned a bathroom at 3 am after a few too many lines.) Coke was also associated with an increase in electrical skin conductance and a decrease in skin temperature—cold sweats anyone? In contrast, readings of participants who took morphine displayed increased skin temperature and decreased movement. No shocker here, either. In a follow-up study, doctors expanded the project to 15 participants wearing the wristband outside a hospital setting for 30 days. The test subjects were chosen because they exhibited a high level of motivation to recover. Every participant kept the sensor on his or her wrist, and many asked to see their data. Some even offered to wear the devices for longer periods of time, if necessary.

The research has also worked to document drug signatures of different types of users—those experimenting with a drug for the first time versus a long-time addict. They’re testing whether the sensors can be used to predict when an overdose victim needs an antidote or should not be discharged from the emergency room. Just like the scenario presented above, advocates envision the sensors as a way to actually predict when a relapse is about to occur.

Next Gen Tx

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to imagine that these wristbands could eventually be handed out to clients in drug treatment programs. For those who are serious about recovery this type of (maybe a little creepy) Big-Brothering is worth considering. The rehab industry standard to measure compliance is currently self-reporting and urine tests. And if you’ve ever lied to your counselor or faked a UA (or heard somebody brag about it while passing you the pipe), you know how fallible those methods can be.

Of course, the wristbands will require a major buy-in on the part of the clients—and I’m not taking about money. For obvious reasons (like a lack of privacy and having to wear an annoying bracelet that’s probably not that cute), this will only work for those who are truly ready to commit to recovery. And that’s why I’m truly enthusiastic about this technology: it combines new ideas with the most important component of lasting recovery—willingness.

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About Author

Becky Sasso is a writer and editor who worked at the world headquarters of an international 12-step organization and has a Master's in communication from Johns Hopkins University. She currently serves as the head of Marketing and Development for The Gentle Barn Foundation and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son.