Psychologists have used tools like this to study PTSD in a research context for more than 20 years, but bringing the technology into clinical practice has been a challenge. “I have felt for years that there are potential clinical applications in these findings,” says Scott Orr, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in the Draper research. “But the type of equipment we use requires a fair amount of training and experience and knowledge of psychophysiology.”
Thanks in part to technological advances in physiological sensors, the tools have become simpler, more user-friendly, and more compact, “making them more attractive to clinicians,” says Orr. “The real challenge now is being able to make sense of the information you are collecting.” Webb and collaborators are trying to solve that problem using different approaches to data analysis, including machine learning.
There’s nothing simple about reliably distinguishing people with PTSD from those with other anxiety disorders. For example, both PTSD sufferers and people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a very different disorder, tend to have an exaggerated startle reaction to loud noises. In addition, not everyone with PTSD reacts to frightening situations in the same way. Previous research suggests that some are “non-responders”—they show less change in heart rate and other indicators than people without the disorder. Webb’s team plans to examine these groups as well.
Beyond diagnosis, the technology might also help assess the effectiveness of different treatments for individual patients. “Lots of times, people aren’t good at telling us how they feel,” says Orr. “They may say, I could feel myself getting worked up, and there is nothing in the data,” says Orr. “Or they don’t think they reacted to anything and we see large increases in heart rate or activity.”