Stress, anxiety and depression are major concerns on university campuses across the U.S., and getting real-time help is critical; college students are a high-risk population for suicide. A Purdue University engineer believes the wearable device he’s created could be a game changer for these young adults. Much like wearable devices that track steps, the device aims to monitor stress in real-time. As inconspicuous as a small BAND-AID worn on the inside of the wrist, the device captured the attention of an Arizona-based startup now working to commercialize the high-tech sensor. Boosted by a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, about 100 Boilermakers will soon be putting the technology to the test.
“Because they don’t have that in-the-moment help, [college students] fall between the cracks, and many of them will choose to self-harm or turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism,” says LifeSpan Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Cary. “For me, it’s a personal issue, because my daughter struggled with it…and left college because she couldn’t cope with the anxiety and depression. So it’s the reason for my crusade—my mission to help this underserved population.”
About 60% of students with mental health issues end up dropping out of school, according to a National Alliance on Mental Health survey. Helping students complete their studies also builds a highly educated workforce.
Cary found the Boilermaker-built device after scouring tech transfer offices throughout the country. Created by Purdue’s Ravi and Eleanor Talwar Rising Star Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering Dr. Wenzhuo Wu, the device clears a major hurdle that others have not: the small sticker is “self-charging,” or triboelectric, meaning it harvests power from human motion—no battery needed.
Wu says the highly sensitive device focuses on heart rate, capturing the three peaks of the entire “pulse waveform.”
“You’re able to derive very rich information regarding the cardiovascular status of your heart,” says Wu, “which also can be correlated to your stress levels and many other health-related issues.”
Supported by a recent $255,000 Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer grant, a study will enroll about 100 Purdue students to test the device’s sensitivity in capturing stress level. The students will wear the device while playing video games designed to ratchet up anxiety (in a controlled environment). The students will also be exposed to games that are meditative to calm their psyche.
LifeSpan’s ultimate goal is to commercialize the sensor in a format that’s also game-like and interactive. For example, Cary says when the sensor detects stress, it could push a personalized intervention—such as a sound, visual or meditation—via an app to the wearer.
The technology would need approval from the FDA as a Prescription Digital Therapeutic (PDT), an emerging category of therapeutics that the FDA defines as software applications prescribed by a licensed healthcare practitioner.
“[It’s a] new category of medicine that’s on the forefront—exploring the efficacy of using video games that are clinically tested and validated as PDTs for the treatment of stress, anxiety, depression and substance misuse relapse prevention,” says Cary. “But it requires stringent testing and validation by the FDA to be categorized as a PDT, or what we call ‘games as medicine,’ so that’s what we’re looking at doing.”
Although his daughter is now doing well, Cary believes a technology like the one he’s helping develop would’ve been “a game changer” for her when she was in college. He says the tool could also give students real-time help when their campus counseling and psychological services center has long wait times. Wu, who teaches and interacts with students daily, sees the stress first-hand.
“At every stage, students have to compete for the things they want to achieve,” says Wu, “and the competition is becoming even more fierce now, especially at a university like Purdue.”
While wearables are commonplace for monitoring physiological health, Wu says “a lot of efforts” are now devoted to using wearable sensors to monitor mental and psychological health.
“Many times with university research, you only end up with a paper published and not so much societal impact. But [with this technology], I can feel the real impact to people and to society,” says Wu. “I think…we can partner with a small business and industries to translate our technologies into really useful products that could have huge societal impact, and that’s something I’m excited about.”
Wu says the sensor would provide objective data regarding stress and anxiety, rather than relying on the current standard of subjective observations.