Faced with a national opioid epidemic, researchers have found that wearable biosensors hold great promise for detecting episodes of drug use in real time with the potential for keeping opioid users on track with substance abuse treatment programs by triggering interventions in the event of a relapse.

The sensors, developed by Waltham, Mass.-based Affectiva, detect and record physiological signs of opioid use. A University of Massachusetts Medical School team tested the use of these wristband sensors worn by patients in an emergency room who were receiving opioids for severe pain relief.

“Our goal was to see if mobile biosensors could indeed identify when someone used an opioid drug,” says Stephanie Carreiro, MD, a fellow in the Division of Medical Toxicology, Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

According to Carreiro, rehabilitation programs have limited abilities to detect when opioid users relapse. However, if clinicians have real-time physiologic data on patients being treated, she contends that they can effectively monitor and intervene when non-compliance occurs.

Carreiro’s team evaluated 30 emergency room patients who agreed to wear the wristband biosensors, enabling researchers to detect how the patients’ bodies reacted to the opioid dosages. The sensors measured electrodermal activity, skin temperature and locomotion data, which was recorded before and after intravenous opioid administration in the ER.

In the study, a significant decrease in locomotion and increase in skin temperature were consistently detected by the biosensors after opioid use.

“Once we have profiles for all these different events, we can potentially outfit patients with sensors and then when an event of interest is detected—such as a relapse or overdose—the sensors can communicate with their smartphone or can transmit data to the cloud for clinicians who can initiate a response,” adds Carreiro.

In addition, she says the biosensors could help monitor developing opioid tolerance and identify people who are at risk for substance abuse or addiction. Prescription opioid use disorder includes symptoms of tolerance and/or withdrawal. The sensors could also be employed to alert a family member or a community support system for addicts.

Prescription opioid misuse is an urgent public health crisis, with drug poisoning deaths involving opioid analgesics—which includes both prescription and illicit opioids—quadrupling between 1999 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid medications are a class of drugs that includes OxyContin and Vicodin. In some instances, prescription opioid misuse can lead to heroin use.

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