By Lamiece Hassan written for The Brain Bank North West
I have an addiction to my smartphone. It helps me to navigate not only the streets of my adopted home city of Manchester, but life in general; everything from banking to shopping, scheduling, videoing, networking, dating and, on occasion, making phone calls. And it helps me to monitor things, like my patterns in exercise, diet and sleep. I’m the type who posts annoying screenshots of their step count on Instagram after a big night (#danceallnight). To some this could seem a somewhat unhealthy, yet common, obsession. However, I’m keen to learn how our increasing attachment to technology can actually help to generate new insights into health and disease and benefit others.
You see, your smartphone is a sort of digital Swiss Army knife, jam-packed with vital sensors and tools that collect, process and transmit all manner of data. Furthermore, it’s a constant companion, always on and always with you, effortlessly tracking your everyday routines. To researchers like me, who would otherwise have to dedicate significant time and effort to collecting these data themselves, smartphone apps are appealing, inexpensive tools for generating a wealth of high quality data on everyday life on a mass-scale. Moreover, this type of ‘big data’ could hold the key to better understanding and treatments for many health conditions – like seasonal allergies, dementia and Parkinson’s.
One area where patient data is currently lacking is seasonal allergies. Allergies are basically the result of the body’s immune system ‘misfiring’ and incorrectly responding to harmless substances or ‘allergens’, such as pollen. These allergies are very common in the Western world. One in four people will experience an allergy at some point in their lives and this number is increasing. However, the causes are unclear. Dr Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at The University of Manchester, explains the situation: “The rise in seasonal allergies like hay fever could be down to all sorts of things – such as changes in pollen exposure, pollution or maybe a lack of childhood exposure to germs. We have good quality data on many of the suspected causes but we don’t know how people are actually being affected. Gathering real-time data on a mass-scale about when and where symptoms occur could really help to change all of that.”
A nationwide study is currently underway to fill in these blanks and try to better understand seasonal allergies, all using a smartphone app called #BritainBreathing*. Allergy sufferers act as ‘citizen sensors’, using the app to keep a daily log of their symptoms (or lack thereof) like sneezing, itchy eyes and wheezing and track them over time. The app automatically does the rest, automatically sharing anonymised reports with the research team, with a time-stamp and approximate location.