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An App to End Nightmares

How Minnesota startup NightWare is working to combat PTSD in military veterans.

An App to End Nightmares

A new Apple Watch application designed by a Minnesota startup could help put a stop to nightmares often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Called NightWare, the software monitors sleep patterns to detect anomalies—night terrors—and uses vibrations to gently arouse sufferers.

Veterans’ groups and sleep experts are already encouraged about NightWare’s potential; the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs gave the company a $100,000 grant. The app is currently undergoing a clinical trial with the Minneapolis and St. Cloud Veterans Administration hospitals and is awaiting FDA approval. Doctors and supervisors from Hennepin County Medical Center and the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center are working on the project.

Eight percent of all Americans—24.4 million people—suffer from PTSD, a psychological disorder causing intense thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic event, years or even decades after its occurrence. Those who’ve served in the military are especially susceptible to PTSD, according to PTSD United, a nonprofit support organization. Nightmares are a common symptom of PTSD, and make the risk of suicide five times more likely.

Tyler Skluzacek, the son of an Iraq war veteran, dreamed up the earliest version of NightWare in 2015 at a Washington, D.C., hackathon to create a PTSD mobile app.

“We ended up winning the entire competition,” says Skluzacek, who was a Macalester College senior at the time. With encouragement from professors and the media, he launched a Kickstarter, which blew past its $2,000 goal, raising almost $27,000. That’s when serial entrepreneur Grady Hannah got involved. He’s now NightWare’s CEO.

“PTSD is up there with the opiate crisis” as a public health issue, Hannah says. “People see that there’s a severe problem … but they don’t really know what to do about it.”

Using sensors already on the Apple Watch, NightWare creates a profile of the user’s sleep patterns based on biometric inputs such as heart rate and movement. When a disturbance is detected, NightWare buzzes, starting at the lowest buzz output and increasing slowly until it arouses the person from the nightmare without waking them. (Simply waking someone from a nightmare can cause sleep deprivation, which compounds mental health issues, Hannah says.)

“[Nightmare sufferers] are finally being allowed to sleep through the night, and their brain is just functioning better,” Hannah says. “So now they can take in cognitive behavior therapy, they can take in peer group counseling. Whatever those resources that the VA is providing, you can now better utilize those, having gotten your sleep.”

NightWare is also in presubmission for FDA approval as a Class II medical device. Hannah says the goal is to secure FDA approval by Veterans’ Day 2020. Follow the company’s progress at night-ware.com. —Tess Allen

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