A person refuses a drink
 The device is designed to ease cravings for alcohol and other addictive behaviours. Image: Adobe

Finnish researchers use touch to suppress addictions

Researchers at Aalto University are developing a device that strokes the skin to stimulate parts of the brain associated with addictions.

Aleksi Teivainen

15.11.2022

The device is designed to suppress craving for alcohol and other addictive behaviours by stroking the skin gently and pleasantly to stimulate the tactile cortex and cerebellum through neural pathways known as C-tactiles.

“The parasympathetic nervous system is activated by gentle, pleasant touches, releasing dopamine and oxytocin, among other things,” explained Juliana Harkki, doctoral researcher participating in the project at Aalto University. “Touch also increases stress tolerance, and stress is a big trigger in alcoholism.”

“The idea is not to replace intimacy with other people but to complement it by mechanically activating certain neural pathways.”

A wrist wearing a device

The device offers discretion for the user. Image: Juliana Harkki

The device is designed to be worn discreetly under clothing, attached to the back or forearm, for example. The project team hopes that the device will be available at pharmacies without a prescription.

The development work is ongoing, with the researchers exploring the possibility of using the device to address stress and other addictive behaviour such as gambling.

“We are also looking at how often the activation needs to be done and in what dosage,” commented Pauli Tuovinen, doctoral researcher serving as the project’s technology lead. “It’s possible that the device doesn’t need to be carried around but could be used at home, for example.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that some three million deaths occur globally every year as a result of harmful alcohol use, representing 5.3 per cent of all deaths. Around three-quarters of people struggling with the problem, however, do not receive treatment – partly because of the associated stigma and partly because of long wait times, according to Aalto University.

A trio of people sit on steps and look at the camera

(left to right) Pauli Tuovinen, Juliana Harkki and Jukka Planman, the team’s commercialisation manager. Image: Otto Olavinen

The development work was launched as part of a project funded by the Helsinki-Uusimaa Regional Council. The work has since also received commercialisation funding from Business Finland.

The work has been carried out under the guidance of an advisory board comprising representatives from Aalto University, the University of Helsinki and Helsinki University Hospital (HUS). Part of its scientific background first emerged from Aalto University and the University of Turku.

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