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Your smartphone can tell when you're drunk

Your smartphone can tell when you’re drunk by detecting changes in the way you walk. The research, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, could ultimately lead to the development of strategies to save many lives.

Study lead author Dr. Brian Suffoletto of the Stanford University School of Medicine conducted the research while at the University of Pittsburgh.

According to Dr. Suffoletto, real-time information about alcohol intoxication could be important for helping people reduce alcohol consumption, preventing drinking and driving, or for alerting a sponsor for someone in treatment.

“We have powerful sensors we carry around with us wherever we go. We need to learn how to use them to best serve public health.”

The research hits very close to home for Dr. Suffoletto.

“I lost a close friend to a drinking and driving crash in college. And as an emergency physician, I have taken care of scores of adults with injuries related to acute alcohol intoxication. Because of this, I have dedicated the past 10 years to testing digital interventions to prevent deaths and injury related to excessive alcohol consumption.”

The investigation was focused on adults between the ages of 21 and 43. The participants were given a mixed drink that had enough vodka to produce a breath alcohol concentration of .20 percent, and were asked to finish the drink within one hour.

Over the next seven hours, the individuals had their breath alcohol concentration analyzed and performed a walking task each hour. 

For the walking task, the researchers placed a smartphone on each participant’s lower back and secured it with an elastic belt. The participants walked a straight line for ten steps, turned around, and walked back ten steps.

The smartphones measured every aspect of movement as the participants walked, including acceleration, side to side, up-down, and forward-backward activity.

The researchers were able to use such changes in gait to identify a breath alcohol concentration that exceeded the legal limit for driving in the United States about 90 percent of the time.

“This controlled lab study shows that our phones can be useful to identify ‘signatures’ of functional impairments related to alcohol,” said Dr. Suffoletto.

While holding a smartphone on the lower back is not typical, the experts will conduct additional research while participants carry phones in their hands and in their pockets.

“In five years, I would like to imagine a world in which if people go out with friends and drink at risky levels, they get an alert at the first sign of impairment and are sent strategies to help them stop drinking and protect them from high-risk events like driving, interpersonal violence and unprotected sexual encounters,” said Dr. Suffoletto.

Going forward, the research team plans to expand their study to identify the best communication and behavioral strategies to influence and support individuals during intoxication.

The study is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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