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Utrecht University
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Utrecht,
21
September
2015

Researchers develop an interactive app for treating insomnia

A virtual sleep coach in your pocket

Summary

Researchers from Utrecht University, the University of Amsterdam and TU Delft have developed an app that helps users learn to sleep better. The aim of this virtual coach is to improve therapy compliance of people who suffer from chronic insomnia. The coaching process with the app is comparable to personal coaching using whatsapp. 

Robbert Jan Beun, researcher at Utrecht University and  project leader Sleepcare
A personalised treatment for insomnia is very important. With the right training, you can learn to sleep better and this will actually be more effective than sleep medication in the long term.
Robbert Jan Beun, researcher at Utrecht University and project leader Sleepcare

There are many different ways to support insomnia treatments with technology, such as apps that measure your sleep or smart alarm clocks that wake you at the right time. However, such technology-supported sleep training programmes are completed by only half of the people with sleeping problems. Researchers from Utrecht University, the University of Amsterdam and TU Delft recently revealed in the Journal of Medical Internet Research that the effectiveness of insomnia treatments is related to therapy compliance. In order to increase the effectiveness of sleep training, the researchers developed an interactive virtual coach, the SleepCare app. 

Smartphone app
The SleepCare smartphone app is based on existing therapy provided by psychologists. The app does more than just record sleeping patterns; users will also practise sleep restriction, relaxation exercises and sleep hygiene - all tailored to the user's daily life pattern. "Researching new treatments for insomnia, such as e-health treatment methods, is important. If this app actually improves sleep, we will be able to reach a large number of people at low cost", says sleep researcher Jaap Lancee (University of Amsterdam).

More effective than sleep medication
Approximately 10% of the Dutch population suffers from chronic insomnia. Consistently poor sleeping may have negative effects on a person's health and quality of life. "A personalised treatment for insomnia is very important. With the right training, you can learn to sleep better and this will actually be more effective than sleep medication in the long term", says project leader Robbert Jan Beun (Utrecht University).

Extra push
The sleep therapy exercises are often clear and simple, but may also be very difficult to maintain. Lancee has previously shown that more people complete an internet-based sleep training programme if they receive email support. "People need that extra push when they are struggling with the therapy." A virtual coach, such as SleepCare, can provide this much-needed support. For example, the user can negotiate with the virtual coach about preferred bedtimes in a manner that is similar to talking to a real coach using whatsapp.

Follow-up research
With this project, the researchers want to gain more insight into personal self-help therapy for sleeping problems and the effect of virtual coaching on sustainable behavioural change. The researchers are looking for participants to help them with the research - people who suffer from chronic insomnia. The SleepCare treatment consists of a six-week training programme. The app is currently only available for Android phones.

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