In the old days, straight jackets were only used to restrain psych patients, but thanks to researchers at the University of California, they may now be used to identify unique behavior patterns for more accurate diagnosis.

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Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), are using a novel device to study the behavior of patients with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The device, called a behavioral-pattern monitor, combines a computerized vest, worn by the patient, and a video camera, embedded in the ceiling. Monitoring the patient with this technology could enable researchers to more accurately diagnose disorders and test the effectiveness of treatments.

“When patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are very symptomatic and psychotic, they often look very similar, and this makes it hard to discern one population from the other,” says William Perry, a professor of psychiatry at UCSD and the lead investigator in the study, whose preliminary results reveal very distinct patterns of activity among patients within these two patient groups. The study uses the behavioral-pattern monitor and is being funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. “By analyzing these unique signature patterns, we hope to learn about the brain functioning in psychotic individuals in ways that current observation methods cannot.”

Researchers at UCSD will be tracking and evaluating the movement patterns of patients wearing a computerized vest, called the LifeShirt, developed by Vivometrics, a company based in Ventura, CA. Part of the behavioral-pattern monitor, the vest is embedded with sensors that measure the physiological responses of patients as they explore a novel environment, in this case a room containing different objects but no chairs. The vest is also equipped with an accelerometer that measures the G forces applied to it. The accelerometer is of particular importance to the UCSD researchers because it enables them to measure how these patients are interacting with their environment–are they walking, moving quickly, standing still, or fidgeting?–and it creates a signature of their activity.

Perry says that if the appropriate behavioral signatures can be distinguished, the system could be used by drug companies to test the effectiveness of some medications. But the UCSD system is challenging because it makes the assumption that body movements are in perfect synchrony with the brain. This is sometimes true, but not always, says Tamminga.

Perry’s ultimate goal: “We want someone to come into a room and spend 15 minutes, and based on the analysis, we can say the probability of this person having an attentional disorder or schizophrenia is quite high.”

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