Opioid abuse is a national epidemic that continues to claim lives and cause significant economic burden. Opioids were introduced for the treatment of chronic pain and initially prescribed liberally, even though there was limited scientific evidence that these medications would not be addictive. Opioid overdose rates quickly increased and, in 2016 more than 40,000 people died from overdose. Computer scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle have developed a smartphone app called Second Chance which detects early signs of overdose, and allows users to call for help.

The app converts a smartphone’s speaker and microphone into a short range sonar system. The speaker emits sound waves that bounce off the user’s chest, and are detected again by the microphone. Based on the time it takes for the echo to be detected by the microphone, the app can detect changes in breathing rate. Slow breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute) or cessation of breathing for 10 seconds were used as early indicators of overdose. In a supervised injection facility (a legally sanctioned facility that allows users consume drugs under supervision), the app was able to detect 47 out of 49 cases where the user stopped breathing due to opioid consumption. The scientists also tested the app in detecting overdose simulated by general anesthesia, and correctly detected 19 out of 20 patients with abnormal breathing. However, there were of course some false-positives.

Since administration of a medication called Naloxone is required to reverse overdose symptoms, it will be important to equip users, nearby friends and family, and EMS with this medication. In the future, the app could be expanded to help prevent overdose from other abused drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamines. In addition, with the rapid growth of wearable technology, the app could potentially make use of additional biology data to improve overdose detection – such as heart rate, blood oxygen levels, body temperature, etc. Altogether, this app provides a window for overdose treatment that may help keep opioid users safe until they can receive long term treatment.

Managing Correspondent: Jeremy Gungabeesoon

News Article: A new app tracks breathing to detect an opioid overdose. ScienceNews

Original Article: Opioid overdose detection using smartphones. Science Translational Medicine

Image Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington 

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