What are the most stressful places in Boston? We’re about to find out

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On launch day for the Boston Stress Study, founder Rob Goldberg’s own stress levels were off the charts. He doesn’t miss the irony in the situation.

“The first thing our technology taught me is that I’m really an introvert,” Goldberg admitted. Last week’s launch event required him to address a crowd multiple times that day. “Embracing that reality has taught me much happiness,” he said.

Goldberg, a neuroscientist and founder of the Boston startup Neumitra, is leading a novel citywide project to map the stress levels of Boston citizens, and identify areas in the city that seem to particularly grate on their nerves.

By recruiting thousands of volunteers across age ranges, professions, and addresses, Goldberg hopes use the city to paint a nuanced portrait of the condition broadly understood as stress.

Part of the study’s novelty comes from the categories of data that it will eventually marry. Participants will provide anonymized data about their physiological condition through the day, known markers like body temperature and heart rate, through a wearable device. But those readings will be mapped against their location and daily schedule, information provided by their cell phone.

“Stress is also the context of when, where, and why,” Goldberg said. “Stress is the commute we take every day, stress is who we talk to.”

The project has won a nod from Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who wrote to Goldberg in June last year commending his goal of understanding a hidden malaise among city dwellers. “This data could be critical towards helping us understand how urban lifestyles affect the overall health and performance of the entire city population,” Walsh wrote.

Goldberg also secured funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, investor Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs, and support from MassChallenge, giving him sufficient resources to recruit the first thousand trial subjects. Researchers from Boston’s extended medical and research community are also on board to participate, and guide the study.

Dr. Dennis Ausiello, a director of the Center for Assessment Technology and Continuous Health (CATCH) at Massachusetts General Hospital, mentored Goldberg and the Neumitra team and describes his approach as “best in class.” He said  studies like Goldberg’s, which weave in long-term biological data with geographic information from smartphones, are going to be more common.

The Boston Stress Study will begin signing up participants in early 2016, but what Goldberg describes as “caregivers” will be a key part of the initial group. This includes healthcare staff like doctors and nurses, but police officers, city employees, students, and veterans will be part of the group too.

Goldberg and fellow researchers at MIT launched Neumitra in 2009 with the plan to build a hardware and software technology that could detect anxiety, measured by how electrically conductive your skin is (it change when you’re harried), heart rate, and temperature. The response was lukewarm, Goldberg said – until “the largest company in the world [came] out with a watch.”

“I have not seen this type of study before in the literature. It adds a lot actually,” said Dr. Roy Phitayakorn, assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School and director of surgical education research at Mass. General, who studies stress among healthcare providers in their work environment.

Physicians tend of have high stress levels and that leads to less empathetic care. “It’s very concerning to us because what we’ve found in our study is that people are very poor at evaluating their own stress,” he said.

Phitayakorn, who will collaborate with Goldberg, said that an objective measure of stress from individuals, each feeding a larger picture of what stress generally looks like, will help hospitals and training programs make changes to ease the strain on their staff.

Said Goldberg: “Boston is a pretty stressful place and frankly, we thought that was a great space for us.”

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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