Leveraging technology to track recovery and relapse in individuals with alcohol use disorders

Alcohol researchers have long known that excessive drinking can cause detrimental changes in cardiovascular functioning. Recent advances in technologies can facilitate data collection that identifies altered cardiovascular functioning even before a diagnosis of cardiovascular disease. These results and others will be shared at the 44th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA), which will be held virtually this year from the 19th – 23rd of June 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Real-world smartphone surveys and passive physiological monitoring are powerful tools for gathering data as close as possible to where people are experiencing something,” said Stephanie Wemm, associate research scientist at Yale School of Medicine. “This data collection might prove to be a valuable tool for identifying when a person is most at risk for excessive alcohol use.” Wemm will discuss her findings at the virtual RSA meeting on 20 June 2021.

Wemm explained that these technologies can provide benefits to both patients and researchers. “From the patient’s perspective, advances in technology have increased access to resources,” she said. “It is easier for patients to find platforms for tracking their drinking, finding providers, accessing treatment resources, as well as where to find an AA meeting. From the researcher’s perspective, it allows us to access patients’ real-world experiences. This means that researchers can obtain richer data about how effective different treatments – including psychotherapy and medications – are at improving participants’ lives.

Wemm’ study used electronic daily diaries, mobile phone surveys, and passive physiological monitoring of heart rates to track recovery and relapse in individuals with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). “Our pilot study findings suggest that individuals with AUDs are displaying altered cardiovascular functioning even before being diagnosed with any type of cardiovascular disease, and that it is impacting their sleep pattern among other symptoms,” she said. “Not only can this type of data collection help identify what findings from laboratory studies are reflected in daily life, but combined smartphone and passive physiological monitoring during early treatment for AUDs can identify novel treatment targets and assess if our treatments are working in the way that we would expect.”

Wemm added that most participants were happy to use smartphones as part of their study participation. In fact, it was easier for them to complete the daily diaries and phone surveys rather than trying to remember what they had done during the previous week. “These data show that people would be receptive to using technologies in the real world even outside of research,” she said.

Another benefit of advancing technology is that passive physiological monitoring is becoming easier and easier, said Wemm. “People are already using different devices that track steps and moment-to-moment heart rates, like Fitbits or Apple watches. Before, collecting data about physiological responses was almost exclusively limited to the laboratory. While a laboratory is useful to control many different things that could potentially change how a person responds to a given stimulus, these controls might not reflect what occurs during a person’s day-to-day life. The ability to collect real-world physiological monitoring with smartphone surveys essentially unlocks this black box.”