October 15, 2007 | last updated May 26, 2012 1:57 am
TRAIN YOUR BRAIN

Nutmeg Startups Aim At High-Tech Cures For Misbehavior | Education, self-help markets draw psychologists into business world

A Middletown psychologist has invented a novel way to teach hyperactive kids to pay attention: Shake them until they know better. Sort of.

The shaking is actually a two-second vibration that emanates from a wristwatch-like device the child wears. A teacher working with the student uses a belt-mounted device to send sends a signal telling the watch to vibrate when the child acts out of turn.

Psychologist-turned-inventor Robert Reynolds created the device, called Good Vibrations, after years of working with kids who suffer from ADD, hyperactivity, autism and other disorders. The treatment was designed as an alternative to expensive medications like Ritalin, which can help a patient focus, but do not teach the skills and strategies to do so, Reynolds said.

The device can also send a series of shorter vibrations when the child acts appropriately, which reinforces good behavior. The watch keeps tracks of all the points the child earned by behaving well or poorly, and a computer program charts the child's progress in learning to not act out. Points can be traded in for rewards such as extra time on a computer. Six weeks of using the device can drastically reduce bad behavior, early tests show.

Reynolds firm is one of a crop of Nutmeg State startups looking to use technology, particularly computers, to change bad behavior or reduce stress. From a trauma-targeting technique developed at UConn to a Yale-based startup where computer users sign contracts with themselves, Connecticut entrepreneurs are looking for cash to spin off companies where customers learn fix themselves.

The timing is right for it. High technology — from computer programs, to inexpensive radio frequency devices, to online training seminars — has become so pervasive and inexpensive that the techniques and treatments based on them are beginning to make sense in the marketplace of ideas.

Talking Science

"Psychology as a field has always been a little behind the times, and it's still a talk-based science," Reynolds said. "But we can't keep running away from technology because it's coming."

His shaking wristwatch product is just one of several devices Reynolds has designed and built through his company, Behavioral Therapeutics, which he runs from his practice in Middletown with three partners in Ohio. Another product, wired to a television, dispenses coins when children behave appropriately and then "charges" kids for time they want to watch the tube.

Reynolds said his firm wants an investment of upwards of $500,000 to create marketing materials and train consultants who can show teachers how to use the devices.

But he thinks the market is good for his technology, thanks to the government, and the economics of his China-made product. Upwards of 25 percent of school budgets in this country are spent on special education. And President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act requires schools, at a parent's request, to buy a technology that can demonstrably benefit students with disorders like ADD. Reynolds said he could sell his product for around $400. Other commonly found devices, such as FM transmitters which students use to amplify a teacher's voice, are school-funded and cost in the thousands.

Moreover, insurance companies might like the idea. A year's supply of Ritalin costs, about $2,000. If a treatment like Reynolds works and is permanently effective, it would become a more attractive option, he said.

The device is already used in a trial at Duffy Elementary School in West Hartford, and another at a school in Cleveland. Two more trials are planned for later this year, including one in an Enfield elementary school.

It's not the only Central Connecticut startup blending psychology and technology. Farmington-based Advanced Trauma Solutions has developed a new technique to treat forms of psychological trauma that it plans to spread through the use of technology.

The treatment, called TARGET, is a type of seven-step program that teaches trauma survivors such as combat veterans and childhood abuse survivors new techniques for how to subdue their psychological baggage.

Julian Ford, a psychiatry professor at UConn Health Center, developed the program five years ago and it's currently being used at a number of Mental Health facilities nationwide. Locally, he's even using the techniques to treat witnesses to the fiery traffic accident at Avon Mountain two years ago, which killed four people.

"This is kind of a new way to take a research developed by a university and deliver it through a commercial wing," said CEO Scott Selig. "There are other similar models, but not many in psychology."

Selig said the company is looking for about $500,000 to help train consultants who can administer the program or teach others to do so. Online and computer-broadcast training videos will be a key element of taking the technology to market, he said.

Online Contracts

Even pop psychologists are getting into the game.

Jordan Goldberg, a Yale business school student, has developed a Web site where users develop contracts with themselves. Called Stickk.com, the yet-to-launch service targets "people who lack the will power or proper motivation to achieve their goals."

Among the potential clients: those who want to lose weight, quit smoking, or need to improve their grades.

Goldberg already has about $140,000 in investment from outsiders; he wants upwards of $5 million to launch and market the service.

So why are all these startups tackling the mind?

"Stress has become a major topic in the workplace" Siegel said. "Society is looking at all of these issues and people are realizing they need self-help and companies are realizing that better mental health will increase productivity."

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