Addicted? Take this app and call me in the morning
Tech firms tackle substance abuse crisis with software delivered by smartphone that reprograms the brain
Technology firms are taking aim at the opioid crisis and related health problems with a new class of treatments – digital therapeutics – delivered by smartphone.
These new treatments, backed by medical research and offered by prescription, are seen as potential ways to supplement, and in some cases replace, pharmaceuticals to treat addiction and other mental and physical health issues.
Smartphone technology may be well suited to behavioural therapy for addiction, depression and other disorders by making treatment more accessible and trackable by medical professionals, researchers say.
“Digital therapeutics are validated scientific treatments delivered in the form of software, which can increase access and provide an immediacy,” said Yuri Maricich, head of the clinical and regulatory team at Pear Therapeutics.
The company has received approval in the US for apps to treat opioid addiction and other kinds of substance abuse.
In January, Pear launched in co-ordination with Novartis unit Sandoz the reSET-O prescription digital therapeutic 12-week cognitive behavioural therapy to treat opioid addiction after receiving approval by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is offered with the commonly used medication buprenorphine for adults under the care of a therapist.
The app includes a dashboard that allows medical teams to monitor a patient’s progress and offer reminders and training. The patient follows onscreen prompts by answering quiz questions, reporting medication usage and reporting substance use, cravings and triggers.
Reprogramming brain rewards
The goal of these apps is to “reprogram” the brain’s rewards system once it has been distorted by addictive substances.
With these technologies, “you disrupt that behaviour chain and learn new skills to make lifestyle changes to stop self-defeating patterns,” said Lisa Marsch, of Dartmouth University, which has conducted trials with Pear and other digital therapeutics firms.
Marsch said research on digital therapies has been ongoing for decades but that the growth in smartphones has made it easier to deliver such care. “People can use it 24/7 as a clinician in their pocket,” she said.
The effect on substance addiction is notable – 40% of patients who used the application along with standard therapy abstained from alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and other substances over three months compared with 17.6% for those receiving standard therapy alone.
Shawn Ryan, a University of Cincinnati professor of medicine and president of the Brightview addiction clinic, said one advantage of digital treatments is that therapists can better track patient progress.
“The digital platforms have figured out how to deliver that treatment and track them,” he said. “There’s so much more data we get by evaluating this through digital platforms.”
Additionally, digital therapies can be delivered remotely in areas where medical care is scarce.
Opioid addiction has ravaged many US communities over the past decade. An estimated 47,000 people died in the US from opioid overdoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and 1.7 million people were suffering from addiction to painkillers like OxyContin.