The research was led by Michael Russell, assistant professor of biobehavioral health.
“Understanding how much alcohol you have consumed is nuanced,” Russell said. “For example, if Person A drinks a 16-ounce pint of craft beer with a 10% alcohol content, Person B drinks a 12-ounce can of light beer with a 4% alcohol content, and Person C drinks a large mixed drink made with several types of liquor, how many drinks have they all had? What if Person A weighs 110 pounds, Person B 220 pounds, and Person C 185 pounds? Does the answer change?”
“By using wearable technology to predict alcohol-related consequences which range from automobile accidents to hangovers to missing work to sexual assault and beyond we can begin to prevent alcohol-related consequences. Our research shows that wearable sensors can be used to help people understand when their drinking is becoming risky.”
Measuring Intoxication Through the Skin
Concentrations of alcohol can be measured by transdermal alcohol concentration sensors through the skin. They provide more data than periodic breathalyzer results or self-reported drinking measurements. Sensors can record a person’s peak intoxication level, the rate at which someone becomes intoxicated, and how much alcohol was in their system and for how long.
To measure intoxication, transdermal sensors are less cumbersome than the other available methods. Breathalyzers and blood sample analyses require active cooperation of the measured person and may be intrusive. However, transdermal sensors are passive and unobstructed, requiring no input from the wearer.
The blood content of a person’s alcohol content can be assessed on the skin because 1% of the alcohol consumed is excreted in sweat. The concentration of alcohol in sweat is similar to the concentration in blood. This makes transdermal sensors a good alternative for measuring the level of alcohol in the blood, for which blood must be drawn.
Alcohol is eliminated more slowly in sweating than in breathing. The amount of alcohol in a person’s breath is almost identical to the amount of alcohol content in their blood, although the amount of alcohol in sweat is slightly low at any given point in time. Breathalyzers and transdermal sensors have different applications.
Breathalyzers provide a more accurate instantaneous reading of someone’s intoxication during a traffic stop. Transdermal sensors, on the other hand, provide a more nuanced understanding of a person’s entire drinking event. Breathalyzers do not capture how much a person drank, how quickly they drank, and how long alcohol remained in their body, but the other method captures them all.
When Three Drinks are not the Same as Three Drinks
This study also demonstrated a finding about intoxication that was very intuitive: when a person becomes intoxicated by consuming the same amount of alcohol on two different days, that person is more likely to suffer negative consequences on the day that they became more intoxicated.
In other words, if a person had six drinks on Friday and six equivalent drinks on Saturday, then he would be more likely to experience consequences if his peak intoxication was higher on one of those days. Peak intoxication can be influenced by several factors, including how quickly a person has been drinking alcohol and what they have eaten recently.
“Alcohol misuse causes problems ranging from the annoyance of a mild hangover to the tragedy of premature death,” said Russell. “This research is one step on a journey toward using technology to limit the harm that alcohol can cause.”
Robert Turrisi, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, and Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State, contributed to this research and publication.
The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Department of Biobehavioral Health.