A close watch: IST seed grant funds study to assess and predict substance co-use

Jessica Hallman
March 13, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A technology-based intervention that could reduce the risk of young adults simultaneously using alcohol and marijuana may soon be as close as a user’s wrist, thanks to a new study launched by researchers at Penn State.

The team recently earned a seed grant from the College of Information Sciences and Technology to assess and predict alcohol and marijuana co-use in young adults through the use of Apple Watches. Simultaneous use of these substances could lead to greater negative health outcomes and consequences, such as substance-use disorder, poor academic performance and impaired driving, compared to using them individually, the researchers said.

“We are trying to understand not only the behavior, but also the contexts that are associated with it,” said Saeed Abdullah, assistant professor of information sciences and technology and principal investigator on the project. “Maybe location, mood or other things indicate that a behavior is about to happen. Being able to predict that behavior is fundamental to being able to provide effective interventions.”

“We’re trying to first learn more about under what conditions people are combining alcohol and marijuana, and then we’re hoping to use this information to help identify moments of greatest risk for helping people reduce problems associated with high-risk use,” added Ashley Linden-Carmichael, assistant research professor of biobehavioral health and co-principal investigator on the project.

In the study, young adults will answer daily survey questions delivered via an Apple Watch or smartphone to measure behavioral and contextual data, such as how much alcohol and marijuana they’ve used, how they’re feeling, and specific events that preceded the substance use. This data could be useful in identifying risk factors associated with simultaneous alcohol and marijuana use and developing preventative measures.

Linden-Carmichael explained that by using an Apple Watch, researchers will be able to gather data in real time from young adults in their day-to-day environments. The ability to collect data through a wearable device could offer substance-abuse researchers more precise data, compared to past study efforts which measured these indicators through manual daily diary entries. Because manual entries are typically made up to 24 hours after the individual uses alcohol or marijuana, they can often be less reliable or subject to user bias.

“The field is moving to understanding real-world behavior as it is happening,” said Linden-Carmichael. “Having the ability to assess and really have an impact while participants are going about their daily lives is exciting.”

While the goal of this study is to collect data that could help minimize high-risk substance use in young adults, their methods could open doors to help with mental health issues and other health concerns.

“If you think about substance abuse and this study and the specific contributions and understanding of this behavior, perhaps we can come up with good intervention techniques,” said Abdullah. “From the IST perspective, this gives us a good understanding of design elements that work for specific health behaviors.

“Think about how the mobile phone changed how we looked at therapy interventions and healthcare," added Abdullah. "Perhaps we’ll see something similar through wearables. It will hopefully be a new paradigm with data collection, intervention and enabling self-care.”

Other collaborators on the project include Stephanie Lanza, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, and Sahiti Kunchay, doctoral student in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

In addition to a seed grant from the College of IST, the study will benefit from Apple Watches funded by a seed grant from the Department of Biobehavioral Health. The researchers hope to gain additional external funding to further advance the project.

Last Updated March 14, 2019