Since 2011, Dr. Deborah Beidel has been treating veterans and first responders with PTSD at the UCF RESTORES clinic. Her intensive treatment program has since become nationally recognized with a more than 70 percent success rate.
But the one thing she hasn’t been able to quite address is her patients’ sleep problems.
Now, Beidel hopes that with a new high-tech sleep study, she can find some clues to how to help people with PTSD sleep better and potentially help improve their symptoms as a result.
The study is unique in that it combines sensory and motion technology with a game that nudges participants to change their sleep habits.
“This research will create much more of an individualized program for each person. So we will be able to give them more specifics about how to help their particular sleep than just what is good sleep in general,” said Beidel.
Sleep disorders in individuals with PTSD can be problematic because the two feed into each other. Bad sleep can worsen PTSD symptoms and PTSD causes sleep problems.
“Some of their most common complaints is difficulty falling sleep, only sleeping for three or four hours and having nightmares. A lot of times veterans will say to us, ‘I don’t want to go to sleep because I don’t want to have those nightmares,'" said Beidel, founder and director of RESTORES.
“You really need to have good sleep to process memories. And when you can’t sleep, memories don’t get processed and therefore that horrifying event that occurred to you never becomes something that gets filed away in your long-term memory. Instead, it’s always right there at the front of your brain."
The study is funded by the Department of Defense and is in partnership between the Maryland-based tech company Intelligent Automation, Inc., which has developed the technology, and RESTORES, which will conduct the study.
Each participant will receive a smart watch, a clip-on light sensor and an Android phone, which is loaded with an app with a pirate-themed game.
The light sensor measures their light exposure while the watch monitors movement. The two feed into the app, which sends out feedback to participants. The app also prompts participants to enter activities such as their eating and exercise habits.
Participants will also play a three-phase game developed by UCF to learn about sleep hygiene. The first two parts of the game include quizzes about good sleep habits. The third and main part of the game gives players rewards for putting what they’ve learned into practice.
About 20 participants will also receive goggles with blue and orange lights. Based on their light exposure, the app prompts them to wear either goggle for a certain amount of time in the morning or night to help regulate their circadian rhythm.
“All creatures on this planet have this 24-hour cycle which is governed by sunrise and sunset, day and night, with them," said Devendra Tolani, a director at Intelligent Automation. “And then there’s a biological clock. So when these two are in sync, everything is hunky dory, but when things go out of sync is when you have issues.”
If shown effective, the technology could complement UCF RESTORES’ current PTSD treatment program and the app could become available to the public, Beidel said.
The clinic is recruiting 74 veterans, active-duty service members or first-responders who work a traditional 9 to 5 shift. Participants need to have a PTSD diagnosis.
Study candidates will be screened for eligibility through an initial phone call. If they meet the requirements, they’ll be asked to go to the clinic’s Orlando or Cocoa location for a 2-hour assessment.