Can your smartphone detect when you’re depressed? This startup thinks so

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Mental health issues are growing in number but in many cases they go left undiagnosed or treated, this breakthrough could help change that.

 

Today we can use smartphones to detect cancer, dementia, eye diseases, heart disease, illness and even inherited genetic conditions, but could your fitful typing and scrolling on your phone be a sign that you’re suffering from depression or anxiety? Well, the creators of Mindstrong Health think so, and if they’re right then your smartphone could start giving doctors a run for their money. The iOS app uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology to scour patients’ phone use for “digital biomarkers” that the company says can indicate mental health issues, which could encourage users to seek out a trained professional. The startup has already racked up tens of millions of dollars in funding from backers including Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and about a dozen counties in California plan to make Mindstrong available to healthcare providers over the next few years.

 

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The problem for some experts in the field though is that, according to a compelling new feature by STAT, is that it’s unclear whether the algorithm works as advertised, and a number of Mindstrong’s claims are now subject to rigorous peer review. However, that said, if a company can accurately tell the mood of someone, whether it’s depressed or otherwise, just by their typing and scrolling behaviours, then the Mindstrong’s technology could be revolutionary – after all, how many people do you know who type and scroll? That’s right – everyone. It could also raise privacy concerns though but that’s a different conversation…

MIT researcher Rosalind Picard, who studies whether information from smartphones can contain clues about users’ moods, told STAT that her own work leaves her skeptical of Mindstrong’s claims. But Mindstrong’s founder, Paul Dagum, is quick to fire back at criticism.

“We’ve done the validation work against the gold-standard clinical tests for depression, for anxiety, for cognitive decline, whether it’s memory or executive function,” he told STAT. “We’re confident, we’re already seeing some really exciting results.”

 

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According to Mindstrong’s website, researchers tested the app in five clinical trials, but none have so far made it into peer-review journals. The company has published one pilot study — though it included only 27 participants.

Since the app might play a significant role in how doctors treat patients with mental illnesses, some experts advise that health officials might want to consider waiting for the peer-reviewed research on Mindstrong to catch up with the hype, but if it does the implications could be huge, for all sorts of reasons.

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