A Tracker for Addicts

Jul 27 2017

A Tracker for Addicts

Fitness trackers, or wearable biosensors, like Fitbit and Jawbone are the latest fitness trend to gain widespread popularity. But some believe they could be used to treat addiction as well.

New research suggests the devices can be used to reliably detect relapses, which could then give treatment providers the information they need to prevent relapses in the future.

“There’s a lot of information that can be gained from when somebody relapses,” says Dr. Stephanie Carreiro, a researcher from the University of Massachusetts.

Dr. Carreiro says wearable biosensors can detect a relapse event for some substances (like heroin and cocaine) by sensing a change in heart rate or other physical conditions. The treatment provider can then use the fitness tracker’s other information, like the time and location of the relapse event, to develop a profile about the conditions that prompt a patient to use.

“It gives us very specific contextual information and serves as that reminder to the patient that someone could potentially know right away when they relapse,” Dr. Carreiro says.

That accountability to someone who could see the relapse is an important step in moving past simple self-reporting and drug testing. People can lie during self-reports and drug testing will only show that drugs were used, but not information like how much was used, when it was used, and where.

Because the sensors can be easily removed, the system will only work for patients who are truly motivated to stay sober. Dr. Carreiro says rather than a big brother scenario with treatment providers tracking a patient’s movements, the devices simply connect a patient to their support network.

“We could potentially trigger an interaction with a patient just seeing if they’re okay and need some help,” Dr. Carreiro says.

In a study of 15 patients, nearly everyone kept wearing the devices even when relapsing. Dr. Carreiro says that’s because many people are already used to wearing fitness trackers, and the treatment plan simply fits into the daily routines they’ve already established. Researchers also say just having a physical object on a patient’s wrist to remind them about their dedication to sobriety can be enough to prevent a relapse.

“Multiple people looked at it and thought of going back to jail or being there for their children,” Dr. Carreiro says. “It definitely served as a reminder that there was something motivating them to stay sober.”

The ultimate goal is to prevent relapses and keep patients on the path to sobriety. While the technology is advancing quickly, researchers say the collective knowledge base simply isn’t there yet to predict a relapse event. But as they conduct more studies and develop better algorithms with the information gained, they should be able to tailor interventions to a specific patient and hopefully keep them from relapsing.

“We need to continue to define different profiles so that we can get a more complete understanding of what’s happening,” Dr. Carreiro says. “That’s when it will be the most powerful.”