A buzzing bracelet created by a local startup company seeks to counteract a condition known as trichotillomania — the habitual, often subconscious, urge to pull on hair, eyebrows and eyelashes.
HabitAware of St. Louis Park has been selling the bracelet for a year, but this month it received a $300,000 federal grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to improve it and prove that it works.
Sameer Kumar created the company along with his wife, Aneela Idnani Kumar, after he discovered in 2014 that his wife had been living with the condition and hiding it. On one occasion, Sameer grabbed his wife’s hand, because she was picking at her eyebrows, and the idea emerged.
“ ‘I wish I had something that would notify me I was doing it that wasn’t you,’ ” Aneela told her husband, “because it’s super annoying” to have someone around you trying to stop the behavior.
As many as one in 50 people have some form of trichotillomania. Often, they are unaware of their hair-pulling habits, so the Kumars created the bracelet to remind them, along with a mobile app to give them alternative activities to occupy their hands.
“Just clenching your fist” is one strategy, Aneela said.
Users first train the so-called Keen awareness bracelets by wearing them while mimicking their hair-pulling motions. The bracelets then learn to respond with a buzz, similar to a text alert, when that motion is repeated.
While the Keen bracelet didn’t require the same preliminary research as a new drug or defibrillator, the Kumars wanted to study it to ensure its effectiveness. The grant will allow them to optimize the bracelet, and to conduct a phase 1 study to prove that it helps people reduce their behaviors.
They plan a phase 2 study eventually in which the bracelet is tested to see if it’s more effective than conventional treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy or medication.
Sameer said the bracelet is trained to mimic the specific, repetitive and often unconscious motion of hair-pulling, and to ignore similar but unrelated arm gestures.
Trichotillomania “occurs on a spectrum,” he said. “It’s different [for everyone] but the research says 75 percent of the episodes occur in this automatic or subconscious way.”
HabitAware has already sold thousands of the Keen bracelets, he said.
The research will be led by Douglas Woods, a Marquette University psychologist with expertise in body-focused repetitive behaviors.