Schizophrenia sufferers are often unable to recognise when changes in behaviour are about to trigger severe relapses.
And such relapses can be brought on simply by a lack of good-quality sleep.
Medical researchers have now teamed up with activity tracker makers Fitbit to see if an early warning system, using Fitbit data and a smartphone app, could lead to dramatic improvements in treatment.
The study is to learn more about how sleeping patterns affect schizophrenia patients and they hope to use this data to recognise signs a person is about to relapse.
The study is called SleepSight and is being run by the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre for Mental Health (BRC-MH) Bioinformatics Core at King’s College London.
“It’s well documented by clinicians that sleep disturbance is one of most highly self-reported factors [prior to a relapse in psychosis],” Amos Folarin, the BRC statistician behind the trial’s SleepSight app. “But it’s hard to cover subjectively.”
“Most people use a sleep diary, but that is probably not reliable in populations of people with mental illness,” specialist registrar in psychiatry Dr Nicholas Meyer adds.
All participants will be given a Fitbit Charge HR with a paired smartphone.
These devices will monitor sleep and daily activity, which will be then uploaded to the team’s servers in real-time for evaluation.
Researchers said: “The stream of information we gather provides us with insight into daily sleep patterns of patients in their normal environments, allowing us to investigate the relationship between sleep quality and relapse in schizophrenia.”
Around one in 100 people are said to experience schizophrenia over the course of their lifetime and it is most often diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 35.
According to project co-lead Dr Richard Dobson, patients are released fairly quickly into the community following their first “episode”.
As a result, he said, an inexpensive automatic alert system could be an excellent way to keep in touch with a patient and ensure they get the treatment they need before another episode strikes.
The trial will continue for two months, but anyone that takes part will be given the option of keeping the Fitbit for a year and sharing that data.