New wearable biosensors that detect alcohol consumption from sweat might one day help us track our alcohol consumption as readily as the Fitbit helps us track our steps. Traditional transdermal alcohol biosensor technology, worn around the ankle and often used to monitor abstinence in the judicial system, has limited utility as a lifestyle tracker due to its bulky size and disruption to other health behaviors like exercise and sleep. A new generation of wrist-worn transdermal alcohol biosensors may have broader appeal and applicability. Laboratory studies of this novel technology show promise but field-testing under real world conditions is needed.
Yale School of Medicine researchers recently conducted a field study of the BACTrack Skyn, the most promising of these new wrist-worn alcohol biosensors, and provided it to 47 heavy-drinking young adults to wear under conditions of daily living. The study, published in Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research and part of a larger trial of mobile health technology for alcohol prevention in young adults, was funded by NIH grants awarded to Lisa Fucito, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry.
In addition to the Skyn, participants wore a traditional alcohol ankle biosensor and kept a daily electronic alcohol diary. Young adults rated the Skyn as most acceptable among these 3 alcohol self-monitoring methods. The Skyn also accurately detected drinking, but the researchers were unable to derive automated rules that could detect drinking in various contexts. For example, the signal threshold indicative of drinking was different for the first versus second half of participants that enrolled. In addition, the accuracy diminished when the same devices were used over time.
“The Skyn has great potential,” said lead author Garrett Ash, PhD, an associate research scientist in the Yale Center for Medical Informatics and an associated health fellow at the Veterans Affairs Connecticut Healthcare System. “Not only is it more comfortable than the ankle sensors, but it also samples alcohol use readings more often, every 20 seconds rather than every 30 minutes, which provides an enormous data stream for more sophisticated analyses in laboratory studies. We were excited to try it in a field study, but encountered some accuracy limitations that should be addressed with improved hardware and analytics.”
Fucito, the senor author, added, “Young adults are an ideal group for this study, given their preference for and facility with health technology. In addition, many engage in binge or high-intensity drinking but are often unaware of the dangerous alcohol levels they reach from such drinking. Thus, more in-the-moment tools are needed to help young adults drink more safely.”
Other Yale researchers who participated in the study included Ralitza Gueorguieva, PhD; Wuyi Wang, PhD; Kelly DeMartini, PhD; Brian Pittman, MS; Nancy Redeker, PhD; and Stephanie O’Malley, PhD; Yale Postgraduate Associate Alum David Robledo; and Brown University faculty member, Nancy Barnett, PhD.