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Making Sense of Sensors: Is it Feasible to Map Substance Craving with Wearable and Mobile Sensors?

Funding Source

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Center for Technology and Behavioral Health Pilot Core

Project Period

October 2012 - September 2013

Principal Investigator

Sarah Lord, PhD; Greg McHugo, PhD

Other Project Staff

Alex Ramsey, PhD


Robert Evans (Google); Rosalind Picard, PhD(MIT Media Lab)

Project Summary

Rapid advances in ubiquitous mobile technologies offer tremendous promise for the ability to continuously assess individual functioning and deliver real-time support, education, or interventions when a person is most in need. Yet, it can be argued that the pace of technology development has exceeded the science in terms of potential impact on health behavior change, particularly in the behavioral health arena, including substance use.

This pilot will draw on the emerging technologies of wearable biosensors, other mobile phone sensors and Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to examine the physiological and subjective self-report indicators of tobacco use and craving among a sample of individuals with tobacco dependence.  Using laboratory and naturalistic methodologies, the immediate goal of the proposed pilot work is to further elucidate the practical feasibility and measurement characteristics of these mobile devices for gathering data to develop precursor psychophysiological signatures of smoking behaviors.

The ultimate goal of this work is to increase the probability of being able to accurately identify psychophysiological precursors of substance use and deliver prevention interventions precisely when individuals need them most, by way of mobile technologies. Mobile healthcare delivery can empower consumers with their own health, and expand care beyond the boundaries of traditional health care settings, a critical feature in light of health care reform.