Wise Therapeutics' game-based app reduces anxiety in multiple sclerosis patients, NYU study finds

Though often overlooked, anxiety disorders are estimated to be three times more common in people with multiple sclerosis than the general population, and even more so in MS patients who also have depression, with about 50% of those patients experiencing anxiety.

As the condition continues to be vastly underdiagnosed and untreated in people with MS—potentially due to the difficulty of distinguishing between anxiety and other neurological changes brought on by the central nervous system disorder—Wise Therapeutics is hoping its stress-reducing digital therapeutic could offer up a solution to this silent epidemic.

So far, so good: A newly published clinical study from Wise and NYU Langone Health found that adolescent and young adult MS patients who used Wise’s Personal Zen app for one month reported reductions of at least 20% in their anxiety levels. That broke down to an average drop of just over 20% in those aged 12 to 17 and nearly 40% in study participants aged 18 to 23.

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During the study, the 35 participants were asked to use the app for a 10- to 15-minute session at least four times a week. In each session, the app offered attention bias modification training by first showing two animated characters—one with an angry expression and one with a neutral or mildly pleasant expression—then asking participants to use their finger to trace the path of the neutral-faced character as it burrowed into a grassy field.

At the end of each week, participants completed surveys about their emotional states and anxiety levels. Once the trial period was complete, about two-thirds of the users reported that the app had benefitted their mental health, describing it as a “peaceful distraction” from stressful or overwhelming situations.

Across the entire group, general feelings of a negative mood were reduced by about 15%.

Wise is currently pursuing FDA clearance for the app, which, if approved, will be available by prescription only. The company is also studying the effects of its gamified attention bias modification training on other patient populations beyond multiple sclerosis, including to reduce anxiety in pregnant women and cut cravings in people with alcohol use disorder.

“Our intention is to market our next generation of products as prescription digital therapeutics for targeted populations like MS, taking advantage of new regulatory and reimbursement pathways that have emerged to help meet the heightened need for accessible mental health treatments,” said Wise CEO Raj Amin.

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Digital therapeutics have become all the rage as of late to treat a variety of mental and physical conditions ranging from anxiety and depression to addiction and insomnia.

Just this week, San Francisco-based startup Mahana Therapeutics raised an impressive $61 million for its own app-based treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. Mahana’s program relies on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help IBS patients learn to recognize and alter the unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviors that may contribute to gastrointestinal flare-ups.

Elsewhere in the space, Happify Health in July launched the prescription Ensemble app to diagnose and manage both major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, while Pear Therapeutics—perhaps the biggest player in digital therapeutics—has set the stage for a SPAC deal to go public with its digital treatments for substance use disorder, schizophrenia, migraines, cancer and more.