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Health Team

New wrist watch tech teams Google, UNC to treat post-traumatic stress

Posted July 26
Updated July 27

Post traumatic stress affects more than 3 million people a year, and symptoms can last for months, years or a lifetime.

It's now a well-recognized problem among military veterans as well as other people who have experienced life-threatening trauma. Now, a new device is a key part of a first-of-its-kind study of trauma recovery.

Retired Army Green Beret Michael Rodriguez recently unpacked a special gift from a former president.

"There's no way I can describe in words what it means to me," Rodriguez said.

President George W. Bush honored Rodriguez and several other war veterans with a collection of painted portraits. Rodriguez, 43, served in the Army's Special Forces, surviving many close calls on the battlefield.

"I kind of made a military career of brain injuries," Rodriguez said. "I've been blown up probably about a dozen times."

He served during a time when post traumatic stress was not well understood. For years, though, he continued serving, even though physical and psychological symptoms of PTS grew worse.

"I'm not ashamed of it," Rodriguez said. "I used to be. I thought it was weakness, but it's not weakness."

He's excited about new research to help others after experiencing life-threatening trauma.

University of North Carolina researchers along 19 medical institutions across the country have teamed with Verily Life Sciences, the medical arm of Google, to develop a new technology. The AURORA study will have 19 research sites across the country, including at UNC, and will give participants a Study Watch.

"(The watch) shows the date and time, but it actually collects a more complex suite of physiologic data than anything else around," said Dr. Samuel McLean, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UNC.

McLean said sensors under the watch record data, including heart rate, electrocardiograms and movement. The information then feeds into Google Cloud servers to help researchers better understand and diagnose conditions like post traumatic stress, post-concussive symptoms, depression and pain.

"(The watch also helps us understand) how can we identify people who are not recovering the way that we would hope, to be able to develop early interventions," McLean said.

Rodriguez said he hopes study results will help others get an early diagnosis and treatment. It may even help his oldest son, who is now serving in Afghanistan.

"That way, they're not waiting 18, 19 years like I did before you're diagnosed and receive treatment which makes it far worse," Rodriguez said.

The $21 million dollar AURORA study is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Research sites will begin enrolling patients this summer.

Participants enroll after they experience life-threatening trauma, and then, using the study watch along with regular in-person evaluations, they will be followed for one year.

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