Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

  • Drew Angerer/Getty Images
  • Intelligent Machines

    Opioid overdoses could be prevented by an app that listens to breathing

    Many overdoses don’t have to be fatal if they’re caught in time. A new app can identify when you might be in trouble and call for help.

    The opioid epidemic in the US kills 115 Americans every day, with fentanyl by far the biggest killer. Per year, drugs in the US are deadlier than gun violence or car crashes. But if caught in time, opioid overdoses are entirely reversible. A new smartphone app might one day help save lives by identifying people when they have overdosed—and then calling their family or emergency services for help.

    The system, developed by a team from the University of Washington, effectively converts a phone into a sonar device using the built-in speaker and microphone. An algorithm analyzes the rate of reflected sound waves to identify if someone’s breathing has slowed or stopped (apnea), or if the person isn’t moving—all of which could signal that an overdose has started.

    The system was tested on 194 participants using heroin, fentanyl, or morphine in a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. It managed to accurately identify apnea 97.7% of the time and slow breathing 89.3% of the time. All participants who overdosed were resuscitated by onsite staff.

    Sign up for The Download
    Your daily dose of what's up in emerging technology

    By signing up you agree to receive email newsletters and notifications from MIT Technology Review. You can change your preferences at any time. View our Privacy Policy for more detail.

    The app also managed to spot 19 out of 20 simulated overdoses in an operating room, where anesthetics were used to mimic the problem. The results were published in Science Translational Medicine today.

    “For a user, all they will have to do is turn the app on, press a button, and it will monitor their breathing, then notify their loved ones if they get into difficulty,” says coauthor Rajalakshmi Nandakumar. In the tests the phone was within a meter of the user, and the app was able to adjust if the phone was moved or if the user’s posture changed.

    The team hopes to integrate the app with 911 and emergency services so help can get to people who’ve overdosed as quickly as possible. It has also applied to get approval from the US Food and Drug Administration so it can spin the technology out into a company.

    The app has proved popular with drug users in follow-up studies, says Nandakumar, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t require camera access or store any recordings, thus preserving privacy.

    “The vast majority of people we ask want to use it. Do they engage in high-risk behavior? Yes. But they want to do it in a safe manner,” she says.

    The challenge now will be encouraging take-up of the app among the population it’s targeting, says Traci Green, an associate professor at Brown University who specializes in opioid overdose prevention.

    “You need to make sure the app is running on a phone that’s got enough battery and that people have access to data plans,” she says. “The question is: what access to tech do people need to make this great idea a reality?”

    Be there when AI pioneers take center stage at EmTech Digital 2019.

    Register now
    More from Intelligent Machines

    Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
    • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

      See details+

      Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

      Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

      10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

      Ad-free website experience

    • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

      See details+

      Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

      The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    /3
    You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.