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Smartwatch app aims to disrupt nightmares for people with PTSD

Posted at 12:49 PM, Dec 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-30 16:55:02-05

CHICAGO, Ill. — Following years of research and clinical trials, a new treatment is becoming available to disrupt nightmares triggered by post-traumatic stress disorder. But it’s not a medicine. It’s a prescription-only Apple Watch app. The “low-risk” treatment uses algorithms to help ensure a good night’s sleep.

During his 21 years in the U.S. army, with deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Robert Guithues saw a lot of action.

“Probably 278 out of 365 days in Afghanistan we were attacked,” said Guithues.

He says faith and commitment to his soldiers got him through it. But the war was far from over. Diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety, night terrors invaded his sleep.

“Finally, I just got to a point I'm like, I can't go like this. I can't go with two, three hours sleeping after three months.”

He’s not alone.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs nightmares are one of the 17 symptoms of PTSD and of those diagnosed, 71% to 96% have nightmares.

“Just something when I was a physician at the V.A. that I found very disturbing is that that they were so fearful of these nightmares and these experiences that they didn't even want to go to sleep,” said Dr. Cathy Goldstein, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Michigan who specializes in sleep disruption.

After years of treating his sleepless nights with medications, Guithues joined an innovative study that uses a smartwatch app called NightWare to disrupt nightmares.

“The platform profiles a person's sleep and at that point can detect when a nightmare is occurring and intervenes by buzzing the watch and increasing intensity to arouse the sleeper from the nightmare without waking them,” said NightWare CEO Grady Hannah.

It takes about 10 days for the app to learn how to interpret an individual’s changes in heart rate and body motion that indicate a nightmare is in progress. The micro-arousals are strong enough to take someone out of the nightmare without waking them.

“There was no increase in sleepiness seen in the small study that was done,” said Dr. Goldstein. “I'd like to see bigger studies and I'd like to see specific patient populations and some objective sleep data as well as what we have now.”

Now the only FDA-approved non-pharmalogical treatment for nightmares, NibghtWare is in the midst of a larger-scale clinical study as it rolls out to market – first focusing on the V.A. and the Department of Defense.

“Three to four hours sleep before and now it's seven, eight, sometimes nine hours uninterrupted sleep,” said Guithues. “This is an investment that could save your life, could save your marriage and you know just do so much so much good for you.”

The NightWare package will be available by prescription to the general public in 2021. But it’s still unclear how quickly commercial insurance will cover it.