New smartphone application could detect first signs of opioid overdose

Written by Olivia Stevenson (Future Science Group)

Researchers from the University of Washington (WA, USA) have developed and tested a cell phone application that could detect an opioid overdose in its users, by using sonar to monitor breathing rate. This application could potentially deliver a reduction in the number of deaths from opioid overdose.
Opioid abuse has become a public health crisis in the USA. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in the USA, more than 115 people die each day after overdosing on opioids. It is possible to reverse the symptoms of an overdose using the drug naloxone. However, if the individual in need of the drug is alone, it may be difficult for them to access help.

In this study, published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers developed a cell phone application called, ‘Second Chance’. The platform uses sonar to monitor an individual up to 3 feet away. By sending sound waves to an individual’s chest, the application can identify certain breathing patterns that may indicate an overdose. To test the algorithm used in the application, participants at the Insite Supervised Injection Facility (Vancouver, Canada) were monitored, while simultaneously wearing chest monitors to track their breathing rates. In 90% of cases, the algorithm was able to identify the changes in breathing that are often signs of an overdose.

To test Second Chance further, the researchers also worked in a hospital setting. Doctors administered anesthetic to healthy participants undergoing previously scheduled surgeries. This slowed or even temporarily stopped their breathing, which was monitored by the application. The platform successfully identified 19 out of 20 simulated overdoses.

As well as identifying breathing problems, Second Chance is also able to monitor the movements of the user.

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“People aren’t always perfectly still while they’re injecting drugs, so we want to still be able to track their breathing as they’re moving around,” said lead author Rajalakshmi Nandakumar (University of Washington Paul G Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering WA, USA). “We can also look for characteristic motions during opioid overdose, like if someone’s head slumps or nods off.”

At present, Second Chance monitors its users. However, in the future, the researchers would like the platform to interact with them. This would mean that when the application detects the signs of an overdose, if there’s no response from the user, the application could send an alert to the emergency services, or to an individual who can administer naloxone.

The researchers are currently applying for US FDA approval, and in the future, anticipate that the platform could be used for a variety of forms of opioid use, rather than solely illegal injectable opioid use, which is all that it has been tested for so far.

“The goal of this project is to try to connect people who are often experiencing overdoses alone to known therapies that can save their lives. We hope that by keeping people safer, they can eventually access long-term treatment,” concluded co-corresponding author Jacob Sunshine (University of Washington School of Medicine WA, USA).

Source: EurekAlert. First smartphone app to detect opioid overdose and its precursors. Press release: