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Feeling Blue? Need Some Coffee? There's an App for That

Feb 14, 2012

In addition to playing Angry Birds or scanning for the latest update on the game, you can now turn to your smartphone or tablet to help you manage your health.  Researchers across CIC universities are bringing the benefits of their work right to our pockets with new apps that help users track moods, caffeine intake, and pharmaceutical side effects.

A Therapist in Your Pocket

Researchers at Northwestern University are developing the Mobilyze! device to give depression sufferers more immediate assistance. The device works by using the phone's sensors to record daily habits such as regular walking patterns, physical activity and how many calls or emails the person gets, creating a "normal" pattern of behavior. Once the the user's patterns are known, the device goes into action--if you are brooding in your apartment on Saturday afternoon the phone intuits when you’re depressed and will nudge you to call or go out with friends.

“We’re inventing new ways technology can help people with mental health problems,” said psychologist David Mohr, director of the new Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School. “The potential to reduce or even prevent depression is enormous.”

“These new approaches could offer fundamentally new treatment options to people who are unable to access traditional services or who are uncomfortable with standard psychotherapy,” Mohr added. “They also can be offered at significantly lower costs, which makes them more viable in an era of limited resources.” 

Best Time for a Coffee Break?

Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and soda are the pick-me-ups of choice for many people, but too much caffeine can cause nervousness and sleep problems.

Caffeine Zone, a software app developed by Penn State researchers, can help people determine when caffeine may give them a mental boost and when it could hurt their sleep patterns. The software takes information on caffeine use and integrates it with information on the effects of caffeine to produce a graph of how the caffeine will affect the users over time.

"Many people don't understand how caffeine levels in their bloodstream go up and how they go down," said Frank Ritter, professor of information sciences and technology, psychology, and computer science and engineering. "It's important to understand the effect that caffeine can have at these various levels." Ritter, who worked with Kuo-Chuan (Martin) Yeh, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, said that if a person drinks a cup of coffee rapidly, they will experience a spike in mental alertness, but enough of the drug can linger in the bloodstream to cause sleep problems hours later. The researchers used peer-reviewed studies as input data to determine that caffeine drinkers with between 200 and 400 milligrams of caffeine in their bloodstream are in an optimal mental alertness zone. For sleep, the researchers set a lower threshold of 100 milligrams. Drinkers may have sleep problems if they remain above this.

The researchers, who reported their findings at the 2011 Augmented Cognition International Conference, said people who drink too much caffeine, too quickly, may face other problems. A spike of caffeine above the optimal level can cause nausea and nervousness.

Tracking Side Effects to Improve Efficacy

A quick, interactive survey taken on an iPad could help pharmacists and patients better use their brief time together to catch and eliminate harmful drug side effects.

Matthew Murawski, a Purdue University associate professor of pharmacy administration, created a new tool that presents patients with a five-question checklist that catches up to 60 percent of all known medication side effects.

"Many patients do not mention side effects to their doctor or pharmacist because they either don't recognize that they are connected to the medication or they consider them the cost they must pay to keep from being ill or dying," Murawski said. "In addition, patients who are experiencing side effects are less likely to take the medication as prescribed or may stop taking the medication altogether, which can lead to catastrophic health consequences. Pharmacists can work with patients to eliminate most of these side effects, but they can't help if they don't know what the patient is experiencing."

Exponential growth in the traffic at pharmacies over the past few decades has slashed the time pharmacists have with each patient to an average of two minutes - one third of what the counseling time was 20 years ago - and a system was needed to help make the discovery of adverse reactions easier and more efficient, he said.

"With all of the training and education invested in every pharmacist, I honestly believe they are the most underutilized health-care practitioners," Murawski said. "This tool makes the few minutes available for counseling much more rewarding. The checklist results allow the pharmacist to immediately see side effects the patient is experiencing and target their time to solving these problems and improving the patient's quality of life."


For more on the breakthrough life-changing research being done across the CIC, please visit the BigScience Newswire page.

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