New iHeal Technology Can Help Recovering Addicts Beat Cravings

Drug or alcohol treatment is highly effective in helping recovering addicts during their clinical stay period, yet many patients struggle with drug cravings and relapse following their treatment due to lack of continual clinical monitoring. Because drug intervention efforts often fail once patients are on their own and without the intervention of medical professionals or the encouragement of the in-patient environment, scientists have been developing revolutionary new ways of implementing such technologies as mobile devices and wireless connectivity to help post-treatment patients effectively self-manage their drug cravings and anxieties and adhere to recovery.

A new network of intelligent technologies, known as iHeal, can detect the patient’s biological and affective changes which can increase their risk of hazardous behaviors like relapse into drug use, and alert the patient of such changes to help them control their behavior. Invented by Edward Boyer of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and his colleagues, iHeal is currently being developed, utilizing the capabilities of artificial intelligence, ongoing biological monitoring, wireless connectivity, and smartphone computation. Boyer and his team have published their preliminary findings on what they are calling ‘enabling technologies’ in a Special Issue of the Journal of Medical Toxicology released online this February.

iHeal’s combination multimedia differs from previous mobile health devices since its enabling technologies include physiological sensory capabilities. Patients with a history of substance abuse or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are equipped with a sensor band (worn around the wrist or ankle) which can detect arousal or stress activity in the central nervous system by measuring electrodermal activity, body motion, skin temperature, and (optionally) heart rate. These physiological measures are then wirelessly transmitted to the patient’s smartphone device where the data is processed and monitored by the device’s mobile software application. If the software detects an increase in the patient’s physiological activity, the iHeal program then assesses what ecological or behavioral events occurred to trigger the change. The smartphone’s application will prompt the patient to input information regarding their activities, drug cravings, and perceived levels of stress to identify what events created the stress or arousal. With information of the patient’s real-time drug cravings and stress levels, the iHeal program is then able to deliver personalized drug use intervention at the exact time when the patient needs it most. Over time, the software creates a dataset of the information in order to establish an algorithm for recognizing the patient’s behavioral changes so the application may continually deliver interventions at the right time.

While the iHeal program was found to be overall successful during the researchers’ clinical investigations, the technology is still being developed in order to guarantee user-friendly capability, personal security, and discreteness based on the iHeal users’ feedback. In their report, the researchers conclude that the final architectural structure of the enabling technologies should be based on the users’ preferences, rather than the advice of technology experts, so as to ensure its effectiveness in use and patients’ long-term adherence to the iHeal technology.

The researchers suggest that the iHeal enabling technologies may be used to help patients who are recovering from such behavioral conditions as substance abuse, overeating, and the management of chronic pain, and even encourage medication adherence. The iHeal Project is ultimately designed to help patients become more aware of their own physiological changes and equip them with the tools needed to help them self-manage their risks and potentially overcome the threat of relapse.