It is estimated that 5 to 10 percent of all US adults have PTSD, more women than men, and the percentage is (obviously) higher among people in the military and veterans.
The good news is that help may be on the way, with the research study called Aurora starting to recruit human subjects to try to figure out what biomarkers connect a traumatic event to the development and eventual diagnosis of PTSD. Working with 19 hospitals around the country, Aurora will ask 5,000 people to become part of the study; is ran by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Harvard, who have turned to Alphabet-owned Verily and Mindstrong for help with data collection and management.
Patients visiting one of Aurora’s 19 partner institutions will be asked to sign up for the study, and if they agree, they will get a baseline biologic and psychiatric assessment, and be asked to return for more tests every month. Also, they’ll get a Verily Study Watch to capture data like heart rate, skin electrical conductivity, and movement; as well as a mobile app from the health startup Mindstrong. This app will monitor things like keystroke speed and pressure, speed of word choice while texting, and even simple time on-screen to pick up early signs and symptoms of psychiatric disorders. It’s the “digital phenotype” of an illness.
Right now, no one knows which people who experience trauma are going to develop PTSD, much less how to prevent it or what the underlying biology is. “So we’ll get people right after the traumatic event, and then see if six months later they develop one of these outcomes, and then we’ll see what’s changed,” says Sam McLean, director of the Institute for Trauma Recovery at UNC-Chapel Hill and Aurora’s principal investigator. “Developing better treatments depends on getting a much deeper, more accurate understanding of what’s going on.”
Aurora got $21 million from the National Institutes of Health to spin up, which is not a lot of money for a big, multicenter, prospective study. So researchers have asked Verily and Mindstrong for help, which in turn will get to play with the Aurora database to validate and improve their own work. Both companies hope to help people, and also sell products.
The three parties have aligned but not equivalent reasons for wanting to bridge the cause-to-symptom gap for PTSD. For people with the disorder, maybe those reasons don’t matter, as long as they get results.