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Sensor technology is psychologists’ latest tool in tackling drug abuse

The same sensor technology used to track performance of elite athletes and monitor vital signs during childbirth is taking a turn as a tool for fighting drug abuse.

At the American Telemedicine Association conference this week, a psychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine described how he’s using the Zephyr BioHarness wireless vital signals monitor to track cardiovascular and respiratory changes in cocaine users, according to Mobihealth News.

Developed for the military, first responders and athletes, the BioHarness is a chest strap with a battery-powered sensor that monitors a person’s heart rate, breathing rate and other vital signs.

At Baylor, Dr. Jin Ho Yoon is reportedly leading an NIH-funded trial using the BioHarness to see how well it can measure changes in heart and lung function when people are exposed to cocaine. According to Mobihealth, as part of the trial, volunteers who had been addicted to cocaine were administered low-dosage intravenous cocaine in hospital beds, while a control group received saline solution. Among those exposed to the drug, the monitor detected sharp increases in heart rates and breathing rates.

That the device detected an increase in those indicators isn’t as significant as the finding that the monitor could generate more data and at a lower price than typical hospital monitors – and that it could work remotely to monitor people recently discharged from care facilities to make sure that they don’t relapse into abuse. (Although Mobihealth suggests that the battery life would need to be extended for effective remote monitoring.)

Cocaine abuse represents just a small percentage of all illicit drug use, but it leads to more than 40 percent of emergency visits related to overdoses from street drugs, Dr. Yoon reportedly told the conference. And, he plans to continue studies with the BioHarness to determine whether it has applications for helping people to quit smoking and fight obesity.

As we’ve reported previously, sensor technology is a hot area in digital health these days, with companies receiving funding for devices that track everything from sleep disorders to head impacts to medication adherence.

When it comes to using sensors to detect and treat substance abuse, the BioHarness isn’t the only device psychologists are studying. The iHeal, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a wristband that detects changes in the electrical activity of the skin, body motion, skin temperature and heart rate to determine when the user might be on the verge of risky behavior like substance abuse. According to reports, it communicates with a smartphone app that prompts users to provide information about potential triggers when the sensor detects a certain stress level and provides timely personalized drug prevention interventions.

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