Smartphone apps to assess mental health based on everyday behavior proliferating

Diagnostic smartphone apps are proliferating. No, these apps don't somehow turn the phone into a needle for drawing blood; instead they monitor stuff we take for granted, like talking or the movement of our eyes.

Dror Ben-Zeev

"The intensity and creativity of these things that are infusing the mHealth (mobile health) field, both the research and private sector, are directly linked to this amazing penetration of mobile phones," said Dartmouth professor Dror Ben-Zeev in an article in Wired.

He is developing an app called CrossCheck that uses a plethora of smartphone sensors to track schizophrenia patients in hopes of finding a "relapse signature."

"When there's a relapse event--meaning, if they either self-report that their symptoms are getting worse, or if they wind up in the hospital--we track back and look at the sensor data for two to three weeks before that event," Ben-Zeev said in Wired. "We try to see: is there something that happened in those weeks that was different from their data stream up until that point?"

Then there's Priori, which constantly records and analyzes the user's voice through a smart phone's microphone to detect signs of mania or depression in patients with bipolar disorder. Mania is characterized by loud and rapid speech that jumps froms topic to topic, while depression is associated with long breaks and pauses, Wired explains.

Both apps are in their early stages. Priori has been tested on 6 people and another trial of 30 people is ongoing. The trial brings to light another awkward and challenging issue: regulation. The FDA issued a guidance on mobile medical apps, but the arena remains in a state of flux or uncertainty.

More generally, values like privacy need to considered as well. Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, psychiatrist in chief at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center said that "the rise of mental health monitoring apps will have a liberating effect, and will extend the boundaries of healthcare in a really enormous way," according to Wired. But he also warned that "there are also ethical and legal principles that will need to be established."

One issue that doesn't seem so intractable is money. Head and eye tracking app Umoove has already raised $3.25 million and is looking to do a Series A VC round. It has launched a videogame to showcase its technology, but plans to make its money in, you guessed it, healthcare.

"Concussions, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and on and on and on, any type of neurological thing can be seen through the eyes, and now you can take a regular mobile device, and with a simple download turn your device into the most advanced medical device with no extra hardware at all," said the company's founder, Yitzi Kempinski, on Bloomberg TV.

- read the article in Wired
- watch the video on Bloomberg TV

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