The Minneapolis VA is testing a medical app to combat PTSD nightmares

Gear

In this June 9, 2014 file photo is a sculpture portraying a wounded soldier being helped on the grounds of the Minneapolis VA Hospital.

(Associated Press/Jim Mone)

The brainchild of a Macalester College graduate to help his father overcome combat-related nightmares has turned into a promising — but still experimental — medical app that is being tested by the Minneapolis VA Medical Center.

Called NightWare, the app is loaded onto an Apple watch, where it learns to track the pulse rates and biometric readings of wearers when they have nightmares. Once trained, the app instructs the watch to buzz lightly, rousing sleepers from their nightmares without fully waking them.


While dreams and even nightmares can play legitimate roles in physical and mental health, they can become "pathological" and "disruptive" to people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Grady Hannah, chief executive of NightWare, a Minneapolis med-tech firm that is developing the app as a medical device.

"These people, when they're having nightmares due to PTSD, they're reliving the worst experiences in their life," he said. "They're in dysphoric states. They're generally miserable."

PTSD, a condition in which sufferers relive past emotional traumas, has been found at higher rates in soldiers and military veterans, including members of the Minnesota National Guard who served prolonged tours in Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist bombings. Screenings immediately after deployments found PTSD symptoms in nearly 5% of active-duty soldiers but nearly 13% of National Guard and reserve unit soldiers.

Treatment typically involves intensive therapy — including exposure sessions that try to get sufferers to recall traumas without feeling the pain of those moments — but there has been little specifically designed to treat PTSD-associated nightmares. Hannah said that's a significant gap, considering that disrupted sleep has been linked to a variety of health problems and increased risk of suicide attempts.

That treatment gap prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to grant special "breakthrough" status to NightWare last month to hasten it through the approval process and to the marketplace.

This month the Minneapolis VA reported that 31 veterans had tried the device, and 85% reported improved sleep within one month. Now VA researchers are starting a trial that will compare veterans who receive buzzes from the watch when they are having nightmares with veterans whose watches simply silently track their pulse and sleep data.

Buzzing and alarm technology has already been used in commercial products to address sleep-related problems, including bed-wetting for children, and in products that didn't receive FDA approval as medical devices.

Hannah said the FDA deemed NightWare a medical device requiring research and approval, to prove that it is effective and safe, which will ultimately increase trust in the system and make it eligible for coverage by health insurance.

"There have been lots of companies that have tried to create consumer treatments that never made it, because marketing direct to consumers takes a lot of money," Hannah said. "And you can't make any medical claims" without research and federal approval to back them up.

Night sweats

NightWare was originally created at a 2015 hackathon technology innovation contest in Washington D.C., by a 21-year-old Macalester student named by Tyler Skluzacek.

Skluzacek had come to learn about PTSD because of his father's struggles following his overseas deployment in 2006.

"He just hit absolute rock bottom," Skluzacek told the Star Tribune in 2015. "He was just depressed and angry and every emotion you can think of that has nothing to do with happy."

Hannah, an entrepreneur and Silicon Valley veteran, read the Star Tribune account and contacted Skluzacek, who now attends graduate school at the University of Chicago, to begin developing the app for use as a medical device.

Hannah is guarded about discussing the benefits of NightWare until the VA research data comes in, but some early test users have called it life-changing.

Justin Miller suffered PTSD after returning home to South Carolina from two deployments in Iraq as part of a sniper team. He had constant nightmares evoking memories of being injured by an explosive device, seeing soldiers die, or being left by his unit in a building and having to fight his way out to avoid capture.

Miller said he would wake in a sweat with a racing pulse. Sometimes he would be flailing about and elbowing his wife. He rarely slept more than four hours per night, he added.

After trying the app in January, Miller said he started sleeping through the night almost immediately. He's had about a dozen nightmares since then, on the nights when he left the watch off his wrist and on the charging station.

Miller said he's drastically reduced his consumption of energy drinks, melatonin to help with sleep, and even his antidepressant dosage.

"Once I started sleeping, it's amazing how much the rest of my life changed," he said. "I have more patience with people. I am able to keep my cool, most of the time.

"I didn't know [sleep] was possible for me anymore. It hadn't happened in 12 to 13 years."

———

©2019 the Star Tribune (Minneapolis). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

SEE ALSO: Rep. Seth Moulton Reveals His Past Struggle With PTSD To Combat Stigma Around Mental Health Care

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Two military bases in Florida and one in Arizona will see heat indexes over 100 degrees four months out of every year if steps aren't taken to reduce carbon emissions, a new study warns.

Read More Show Less

This Veterans Day, two post-9/11 veterans-turned congressmen introduced bipartisan legislation to have a memorial commemorating the Global War on Terrorism built on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Read More Show Less

Between 500 and 600 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Syria when all is said and done, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said on Sunday.

Milley's comments on ABC News' "This Week" indicate the U.S. military's footprint in Syria will end up being roughly half the size it was before Turkey invaded Kurdish-held northeast Syria last month.

Read More Show Less
Democratic presidential candidate South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a fund-raising fish fry for U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at Hawkeye Downs Expo Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Associated Press/Charlie Neibergall)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — On Veterans Day, Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg is proposing a "veteran-centric" Department of Veterans Affairs that will honor the service of the men and women of the military who represent "the best of who we are and what we can be."

Buttigieg, who served as a Navy intelligence officer in Afghanistan, said service members are united by a "shared commitment to support and defend the United States" and in doing so they set an example "for us and the world, about the potential of the American experiment."

Read More Show Less
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a Climate Crisis Summit with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (not pictured) at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S. November 9, 2019. (Reuters/Scott Morgan)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders promised on Monday to boost healthcare services for military veterans if he is elected, putting a priority on upgrading facilities and hiring more doctors and nurses for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To mark Monday's Veterans Day holiday honoring those who served in the military, Sanders vowed to fill nearly 50,000 slots for doctors, nurses and other medical professionals at facilities run by Veterans Affairs during his first year in office.

Sanders also called for at least $62 billion in new funding to repair, modernize and rebuild hospitals and clinics to meet what he called the "moral obligation" of providing quality care for those who served in the military.

Read More Show Less