- Less than 50 per cent of people with depression receive the treatment they need
- Medibio claims its app can detect signs of mental illness by analysing your heart rate
- The Mindstrong Health app detects anxiety and depression by analysing how you type, scroll, and swipe
- Not everyone is convinced these apps can do what they claim
Slowly, and practically without us even realising it, mental illness has crept up to the top of the list of health-related issues facing our society today, reaching nearly epidemic proportions. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression now affects more than 300 million people worldwide. It’s a serious condition that can adversely affect almost every aspect of a person’s life, in the worst cases even leading to suicide. Anyone can at some point be affected by depression, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, or social status. It’s considered to be the world’s leading cause of disability and one of the main causes of preventable death. According to the WHO, almost 800,000 people commit suicide every year. In fact, it’s now the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29.
Less than 50 per cent of people with depression receive the treatment they need
However, more than half of the people suffering from depression never receive the treatment they so desperately need, despite the existence of some fairly effective options, ranging from medication to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). One of the main reasons is that depression can be very difficult to diagnose. Unlike most other illnesses, depression can’t be detected with a blood test, a scan, or a physical examination. Instead, doctors have to rely on a patient’s personal accounts, which can often be subjective and unreliable. Furthermore, many people avoid seeking professional help out of fear of being stigmatised by their community. But that may be about to change. Two companies recently announced that they’ve found a way to detect early signs of mental illness using nothing more than a smartphone app.
Medibio claims its app can detect signs of mental illness by analysing your heart rate
Medibio is an Australian company that aims to provide an objective way to diagnose a variety of mental illnesses. “The problem with mental health today is that there's no objective diagnosis,” says Jack Cosentino, Medibio's CEO. “People go home with a pamphlet, a recommendation, and usually a drug.” But instead of relying on the patient’s or doctor’s subjective assessment, Medibio uses wearable devices, such as electrocardiogram readers, Fitbits, Garmin fitness bands, and Apple Watches, to collect biometric data about a person’s heart rate, breathing, and sleep patterns. This data is then fed into a smartphone app, which analyses it to determine whether there are any signs of mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.
Medibio’s approach is based on old research that found evidence to suggest that certain changes in a person’s heart rate during sleep can reveal the presence of underlying mental health conditions. For example, while a healthy person’s heart rate usually slows down during sleep, the sleeping heart rate of a person suffering from depression gradually increases through the night until it reaches the normal daytime heart rate by sunrise. “We have employed data science and machine learning to analyze that heart-rate data and we have drawn correlations between ... the heart-rate data during sleep and a number of different conditions like anxiety, depression, psychotic depression, schizophrenia, PTSD,” says Jeremy Schroetter, Medibio’s chief technology officer.
The Mindstrong Health app detects anxiety and depression by analysing how you type, scroll, and swipe
Co-founded by Tom Insel, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Mindstrong Health is a Silicon Valley-based startup that claims it can detect signs of mental illness in a person by simply analysing how they type, scroll, and swipe on their smartphone. According to the company, by analysing these human-computer interactions during regular smartphone use, it was able to identify digital biomarkers associated with cognitive function that produced results comparable to those achieved with current gold-standard neurocognitive tests, which means it could be used to gain insight into a person’s mental health.
While the company hasn’t yet disclosed how exactly the technology works, it claims that it offers a more reliable and objective way to detect signs of mental illness. “The traditional measures of mental health are patient self-assessments or clinician-administered questionnaires. They have relatively low inter-rater reliability, and don’t assess patients in real world settings. Mood and cognitive function vary widely from day to day and during the day, and are subject to a range of environmental factors. Real-time, continuous, ecological measurements of the kind we are identifying are key for enabling a new outpatient care model for mental health patients,” says Insel. Many people seem to believe in the app and the company has managed to secure tens of millions in venture capital funding from various backers, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, while about 15 counties in California have already announced plans to bring the app into their healthcare systems.
Not everyone is convinced these apps can do what they claim
However, many experts are doubtful that something as complex as depression could be diagnosed with a simple smartphone app. “I’m suspicious that a single modality like typing is going to be sufficient. It would be like saying there’s a single question [on a screening questionnaire] that a doctor could be using,” says Rosalind Picard, a researcher at MIT Media Lab. “My guess is that their specificity to depression is going to be relatively low.” Another issue is that Mindstrong still doesn’t have any published, peer-reviewed data that can support its claims, so nobody really knows how its algorithms work or how accurate they are. While the company says that it’s already completed five clinical trials, none of the results have been published yet.
Mental illness is one of the world’s most pressing issues, affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Yet, even though we’ve managed to develop some fairly effective treatments for a wide variety of mental health conditions, more than 50 per cent of people affected never receive the treatment they need. While it’s too early to tell whether these apps can really do what they claim, it’s certainly an idea worth exploring further.