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The HeroTrak smartwatch being developed by the ACE Lab at TAMU tracks biometric data as well as provides resources for veterans with PTS like breathing exercises and support to help manage their stress levels.

A professor at Texas A&M University and his students are developing a new tool in hopes of improving the quality of life for military veterans with post-traumatic stress.

Farzan Sasangohar, a Ph.D. and assistant professor of industrial engineering at TAMU, leads the university’s Applied Cognitive Ergonomics Lab, which is a “multi-disciplinary research laboratory focused on human-centered design, development and testing of complex human-systems.”

The ACE Lab is currently working on a number of projects, one of which aims to help veterans living with PTS. “HeroTrak” is a smartwatch designed to track the user’s biometrics to record, predict and prevent episodes related to PTS.

“When we started looking at this entire ecosystem around PTSD care, we noticed veterans especially don’t get enough attention when they’re away from treatment,” Sasangohar said about the idea behind the watch.

He added that often veterans only receive treatment for about an hour once a week, or sometimes even just once a month. In addition to providing extra support and resources to the veteran using the watch, it also will help streamline some parts of the treatment when veterans do see their doctor for PTS. Instead of spending large amounts of time during the appointment discussing the patient’s self-assessments of their symptoms and triggers, the doctor will be able to download the patient’s data from the watch beforehand. This provides a more objective overview and will open up more “quality time” during the appointment for therapeutic activities, Sasangohar said.

In addition to tracking biometric data like heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate and sleep quality, the watch will also include resources like breathing exercises to help mitigate an episode, as well as features that can help the user connect directly with their physician or emergency contact, or even alert emergency services if needed.

“It predicts the onset of PTS triggers,” Sasangohar said. “Once we can predict those triggers with high levels of accuracy, then we can interrupt them.”

He said that now, many patients don’t realize what’s happening or pick up on those triggers until it’s too late to do anything.

“The advantage of the tool is that it predicts the onset of these PTS triggers,” he said. “It intervenes at the right time.”

There are already smartphone applications designed to help individuals with PTS, but Sasangohar believes they don’t do enough or provide enough support. The goal of this project is to build on those ideas and make them more practical and useful.

Last month, the ACE Lab took its HeroTrak watch out of the lab and into the real world for veterans with Project Hero’s Ride 2 Recovery to wear as they completed the weeklong Texas Challenge road cycling event. Around 30-35 veterans participated in the first test of the watch in a non-lab, “natural” setting, Sasangohar said.

A bit part of making sure this project could be successful was the ability of veterans to adapt to this technology, Sasangohar said.

“A pleasant surprise was finding that veterans in particular are very tech-savvy,” he said. “They actually love their gadgets and available technology in smartwatches.”

Douglas Hebbard, an Army veteran from Sacramento, California, was one of the veterans living with PTS who field-tested the watch for the lab.

“So far, it’s not that bad,” he said. “I kind of like it. It’s pretty cool. And when they get the program algorithm written, I think it’s going to be a great tool. It’s kind of like having your own service dog on your wrist.”

Hebbard said the watch has been a helpful tool for him, providing him with resources to help him manage his PTS triggers.

“I’ve alerted (it) a few times,” he said. “The relaxation stuff and everything, it does help.”

He added he will “definitely” use this tool once it’s released on the market.

Sasangohar said his researchers were able to get “a lot of data” from the Ride 2 Recovery patients testing the watch for five to six days, 24 hours a day.

“And we asked them to self-report those PTS triggers,” he said. “We made the tool in a way they could easily report back to us if they’re experiencing PTS symptoms. That helps us train this algorithm to make it better, make sure it’s predictive enough.”

He added that he was “overwhelmed” with the amount of positive feedback he received from the veterans.

“They found the idea very practical … they were all super supportive,” he said, adding that nearly all of the testers volunteered to help the project if the lab wanted more testing later on. “It was very encouraging.”

For now, Sasangohar and the ACE Lab are focused on perfecting the predictive algorithm of the watch to prevent “false alarms.”

“We want to make sure interventions are accurate,” he said.

Although HeroTrak is still in its testing stage, Sasangohar and the ACE Lab hope to have the design and algorithms perfected in order to release the watch onto the market in the next year-and-a-half or so.

He also said he hopes to eventually be able to partner with the Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to have all veterans benefit from this technology.

Eventually this technology can also be applied and used by non-veteran patients, the professor

added.

“We started (this project) motivated by this particular population of veterans because the consequences are much more tangible for veterans these days, but then this tool can benefit all sorts of patients with anxiety-relateed symptoms,” Sasangohar said.