A team of students at the University of Washington had the winning prototype during presentations in the school’s Neural Engineering Tech Studio after they developed an app to help people who experience panic attacks. Along the way they worked with the teenage son of their professor to better inform what the app should do.
The Neural Engineering Tech Studio is a 10-week course offered once per year at the UW. Teams of graduate and undergraduate students create neural engineering device prototypes that are commercially viable and address specific health conditions. Final projects were presented earlier this month to a panel of industry judges in a “Shark Tank”-style format.
Dylan Jensen, Rachael Tessem and Renae Tessem are all senior bioengineering majors and Ashley Fogwell is a senior electrical engineering major on a team working on an app called PanicAway. Scott Ransom is the director of industry and innovation at the Center for Neurotechnology and he led the Tech Studio class.
Noah Ransom, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, was doing schoolwork in his father’s office one day when the chance to be interviewed by PanicAway team members came up. Noah has suffered through anxiety-induced seizures, which usually start with panic attack symptoms, since the seventh grade.
“There’s been a lot of different ways that I’ve tried to cope,” Noah said. “I have had some experiences with therapists and stuff that would help but it’s hard to focus on that when you’re in the moment of having an anxiety-induced seizure. Having a phone there is really good, I thought.”
PanicAway’s initial prototype relies on a user with access to an iPhone and an Apple Watch that is acting as a heart-rate monitor. When a user’s heart rate exceeds a certain threshold, PanicAway goes to work, first prompting the user and then offering a number of coping features.
Ransom said one of the important aspects of the class was to focus on engineering design from the user’s perspective rather than working toward something that may not be useful. He wanted students to put themselves in the shoes of a person who would benefit from the type of medical application or device being created.
That led to the encouragement to look for potential users and understand their story. How does the device impact them? How does it change their lives?
“That was really what the students were encouraged to explore and part of what they were graded on,” Ransom said. “That’s a unique perspective compared to other design courses — being empathetic with end users and putting that front and center.”
Renae Tessem said the team focused on software and building an app because none of them had that experience and it’s a skill they wanted to learn. She said that an app would be the most accessible platform with the potential to reach the greatest number of people. About 2-to-3 percent of Americans experience some sort of panic disorder in an average year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“It was really important for us from the beginning to think about what our design goal was, what we wanted all of the features to be, really thinking about the big picture, what impact we wanted to make,” Renae’s teammate and sister Rachael Tessem said. “In the beginning we spent a lot of time thinking about features like confidentiality, automaticity, customizability.”
The team spoke to Noah extensively and he told them what a panic attack looked like for him, and what his current coping mechanisms are. He was asked whether he had helpful resources on his phone and whether he spent time in the midst of an attack looking for them. Noah provided lots of insight.
“One of the things that we talked about that is most important for me is cutting out all other sensory inputs and focusing on one thing,” Noah said. “Usually I like to tap my foot or focus on some sort of beat I can follow rather than trying to take in all the information that’s around me. So something like a watch vibrating, I said, would be really helpful to add. Something to focus on is a big part of it.”
While Noah hasn’t had the chance to actually use the app in the event of a panic attack — it’s still in development — he believes that what’s being created would be a good outlet to help with what he suffers through. He’s seen his fair share of therapists and in the past he’s practiced eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a form of psychotherapy treatment.
He liked a PanicAway feature that allows a user to record messages or sounds that could be played back.
“If I could record myself talking to me, that would be really helpful. It’s helpful to get support from others, but you’re the only one that really knows what’s going on in your mind,” Noah said. “So I feel like being able to give yourself some advice in that moment is a really good tool.”
Ransom made it clear with the students that it wouldn’t benefit their grade or hurt their grade if they wanted to talk to his son. And he told Noah that he didn’t have to share with the team more than he was comfortable with.
“Obviously with any physical or psychological issue, privacy is important,” Ransom said. “He’s actually been very transparent and shared a lot about his experiences. He’s been really happy to get to share his story with the team and kind of help their design.”
The team took privacy into consideration even with the initial alert triggered by the heart monitor. It simply asks “Having a PA? Yes / No.” It’s important to have the user confirm they need some intervention from the app without alerting everyone around them, which only increases anxiety.
If the user responds “yes,” they’ll get a pre-programmed therapy initiation which could be a pre-recorded therapy session, a YouTube video, a self-recording of the patient or a recording from a friend or parents. If they say “no” to that initial prompt, then they have access to a video repository where they can spend time preparing for anxiety-inducing situations.
“We believe our solution will give someone experiencing a panic attack what they need, when they need it, the way they want it,” Rachael Tessem said.
The team looks forward to developing a calibration phase, where the app gets personalized to the individual by constantly monitoring heart rate data by learning normal fluctuation compared to fluctuation during a panic attack.
The Neural Engineering Tech Studio is well known on campus and other resources at the UW are anxious to help students who go through the class, Ransom said. The Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship offers business analysis, market analysis and customer discovery support for teams that want to go on and develop devices into something marketable. CoMotion, the school’s collaboration hub, offers support in provisional patent applications and incubator space. And the Center for Neurotechnology also offers incubator space and resources and materials for students.
Here’s a list of all of the teams that competed in the final presentation event:
- PanicAway: A smartphone app that assists users in averting or recovering from panic attacks.
- Team Fusion: A spinal support device with stimulation capability to enhance rehabilitation.
- Engagefy: An attention monitoring system.
- Myovate: EMG controlled robotics.
- Kioku: A memory enhancement app for smartphone users.
- Aurora: Sleep optimization using physiologic monitoring.