A high-tech startup that uses game-based interventions to help users identify stress- and anxiety-related events in real time and receive a personalized intervention has been awarded a federal grant to partially develop its technology through research at Purdue University’s College of Engineering.
LifeSpan CEO Jeffrey A. Cary said the company has received a one-year, Phase I Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grant of $255,409 from the National Science Foundation. It will fund research led by Wenzhuo Wu, the Ravi and Eleanor Talwar Rising Star Associate Professor of Industrial Engineering in the School of Industrial Engineering. Other research will be conducted at George Mason University and the Virginia Serious Game Institute.
“The proceeds will prove or disprove the hypothesis that an interactive, game-based mental health intervention that uses autonomic biofeedback training will be an effective mental health and substance abuse intervention,” Cary said. “We also will prove the effectiveness and adoptability of Wu’s heart rate variability-based, or HRV, wearable device.”
Wu said LifeSpan’s intervention technology improves upon traditional methods to identify those in need of mental health services and to deliver those services.
“Current methods for identifying and diagnosing mental disorders are often based on unreliable, retrospective self-reporting that is dependent on high levels of client motivation and insight. Some apps assess stress and sleep issues subjectively, without relying on physiological measurements,” Wu said.
“Further, common modes of clinic- or lab-based mental health assessment and treatment delivery are severely limited in scope and only serve a fraction of those in need. Electrocardiography and photoplethysmography, also known as ECG and PPG, are constrained by cost and energy consumption.”
Wu said video game-like technology has recently been developed to increase users’ interest and engagement in biofeedback and to facilitate the learning of deep breathing techniques, relaxation and emotional self-regulation. Although there is not yet ample empirical evidence demonstrating the efficacy of these new programs, he said it stands to reason that such technology may be useful, partly because children and adolescents are often avid video game users.
“School-age children in the United States spend an average of seven hours a week playing video games; high school and college students average about nine,” Wu said. “Given their prevalence in youth culture, video game-based programs may be enjoyable and motivating media for treatments intended for children and adolescents.
“Video game technology already has successfully been used to aid in the treatment of several childhood illnesses such as asthma, cancer, diabetes and even post-traumatic stress disorder.”
LifeSpan’s technology also will use Wu’s wearable triboelectric device, which harvests operational power from human motion. The device can detect even the slightest degree of skin movement caused by the human pulse. It captures the cardiovascular information encoded in the pulse signals for high-fidelity monitoring.
“By using a combination of actively and passively collected in situ data, our technology platform will allow end users to understand links between emotions, stressors and social interaction, and enable them to make lasting positive improvements to mental and physical health,” Wu said.
LifeSpan’s initial target audience is higher-education students, with a focus on students in transition – high school to the first year of college, undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to the workforce – and those in marginalized and underserved communities. Cary said the company’s technology benefits many groups, including students and their parents.
“Students benefit by having a resource available that is not subject to long wait times at their schools’ counseling and psychological services (CAPS) centers,” Cary said. “Parents benefit by seeing their kids graduate; 60 percent of students with mental health issues end up dropping out of school, according to the results of a National Alliance on Mental Health survey.
“Society benefits by developing a future workforce with a higher level of emotional intelligence and emotional self-regulation. CAPS centers benefit by having a supplemental resource that is evidence-based and always available. Health care systems benefit by reducing the number of mental health-related emergency room visits and health care costs by providers.”
Cary said the results of the Phase I research will be an end-to-end proof of concept, three published papers in peer-reviewed journals and a presentation at a major conference in May 2023.
“These results will allow LifeSpan to attract venture capital and strategic industry partnerships, and we will apply for follow-on Phase II and Phase III funding for Wu’s research,” he said.
Cary said prior to the ending timeline of the Phase I grant, LifeSpan must secure outside seed funding to move forward with Phase II activities and pilots with select potential customers.
“In addition, we will engage with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to begin the process of classifying our commercial platform as a prescriptive digital therapeutic, or PDT,” he said.
LifeSpan has an option agreement with the Purdue Research Foundation Office of Technology Commercialization to commercialize Wu’s intellectual property.