This is how tech can help people battling addiction

What does a person addicted to drugs look like?

You might think that only some types of people can get addicted to drugs. The truth is, it can happen to anyone, whether you're young or old, rich or poor, male or female.
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You might think that only some types of people can get addicted to drugs. The truth is, it can happen to anyone, whether you're young or old, rich or poor, male or female.

Penn State researchers are working on a system that aims to help people in addiction recovery not just get by, but thrive.

The system, WearIT, is a scientific framework that will utilize a commercial wearable device, such as a Fitbit, and a smartphone app to track the wearer’s feelings and physiological state.

It was created by Timothy Brick and Zita Oravecz, assistant professors of human development and family studies and co-principal investigators; and James Mundie, a mobile app developer at Penn State.

In December, WearIT won $10,000 from the Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania’s TechCelerator program to aid in the development of a startup company.

“This is a research project fundamentally,” Brick said. “... The idea of this company is to provide us with an avenue for dissemination essentially. This is a way to take the science — they say ‘bench to bedside.’ To take it from something that’s just a pure science idea with some good ideas and some math behind it and turn it into something that really can help people.”

So how does it work?

The wearable device is always on and collecting data, such as heart rate, and that’s being monitored on the app, Mundie said. When the device detects a signal — in this case an “indicator of cravings” — the app can provide intervention at that moment.

Something that’s common with opiate addiction is that someone will develop cravings on his or her commute home, Brick said, and there’s a lot going on during the commute — tiredness from a long day at work, anger from being stuck in traffic, etc. But there are other minor things that can be triggers that someone might not realize, like driving past a sign for a drugstore.

He said if someone is addicted to an opiate that he or she was getting as a prescription drug, that may trigger a craving with the person even noticing the sign consciously.

That’s the sort of thing the team wants to be able to draw “inferences” from, Brick said, and it might be something as simple as the person taking a different route home to avoid that sign and maybe dodge some traffic so that he or she gets home in a much better state.

It’s supporting and helping people to thrive and flourish in everyday life, Oravecz said.

And collecting the data can work on multiple levels.

One is to be able to intervene in the moment when someone is having a rough time, such as by having the app suggest a breathing exercise or that the person call a sponsor, Brick said.

But then the data can also be used in collaboration with a recovery counselor, for example, he said. The patient and counselor can look at the data and inferences that have been drawn over the long term to figure out what advice works best for the individual.

He said it’s a “bootstrap process,” meaning the road to recovery is different for every person, and the advice needs to be customized to the individual.

It can also change the way an individual discusses his or her addiction with a counselor.

“By collecting data we can shift that conversation from, ‘Did you have any low points last week?’ to ‘Tell me about this specific time,’ ” Mundie said.

Having the data also allows for an individual and counselor to work together toward a common goal and talk about what’s happening without being confrontational, Brick said.

“Addicts are habitual liars. So it’s really hard to lie when you have the data to look at. And they’re not necessarily lying for any reason other than it’s just a habit,” Mundie said.

Brick added that it’s a side effect of the disease.

For Brick, it’s exciting that the team can do this scientific development and at the same time it can have an immediate impact on people’s lives.

When the product and company launch, Mundie said they’re interested in working mostly with rehab clinics — it won’t be an app that’s available in the app store.

The smartphone app, which is being developed for both Android and iOS, is still in the prototype stage. A wearable add-on is in early development.

Funding for the research behind WearIT came from the College of Health and Human Development Discovery to Innovation Grant Program and Penn State’s Fund for Innovation.

Sarah Rafacz: 814-231-4619, @SarahRafacz