A new smartphone that can determine when you are depressed and urge you to reach out to friends is in development at Northwestern University.
Researchers at the school’s Feinberg School of Medicine are working on a variety of web-based, mobile and virtual technologies to treat depression and other mood disorders.
Other projects include a virtual human therapist who will work with teens to prevent depression; a medicine bottle that reminds you to take antidepressant medication and tells your doctor if the dosage needs adjusting; and a web-based social network to help cancer survivors relieve sadness and stress.
“We’re inventing new ways technology can help people with mental health problems,” said psychologist Dr. David Mohr, director of the new Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School.
“The potential to reduce or even prevent depression is enormous.”
The new approaches could offer new treatment options to people who are unable to access traditional services or are uncomfortable with standard therapy, he added. “They also can be offered at significantly lower costs, which makes them more viable in an era of limited resources.”
Topping the list of projects is a smartphone that spots symptoms of depression by harnessing all the sensor data within the phone to interpret a person’s location, activity level (via an accelerometer), social context and mood. If the phone — which learns your usual patterns — senses you are isolated, it will send a suggestion to call or see friends. The technology, which still is being tweaked, is called Mobilyze! and has been tested in a small pilot study, researchers said, noting it helped reduce symptoms of depression.
“By prompting people to increase behaviors that are pleasurable or rewarding, we believe that Mobilyze! will improve mood,” Mohr said.
“It creates a positive feedback loop. Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again. Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral.”
The new medicine bottle now in development will track if you forgot your daily dose of antidepressant medication and remind you to take it.
“People whose depression is being treated by primary care doctors often don’t do very well, partly because patients don’t take their medications and partly because the doctors don’t follow up as frequently as they should to optimize the medication and dosage when necessary,” Mohr said. “This pill dispenser addresses both issues.”
The bottle is part of a MedLink system, which will include a mobile app that monitors the patient’s depressive symptoms and any medication side effects and will provide tailored advice to manage problems, he explained. The information is then sent to the physician or health care provider with a recommendation, such as a change in the dose or drug, if necessary. The MedLink system also will be used to improve medication adherence in patients with schizophrenia and HIV.
Also in the works is a virtual programmable human who will role-play with adolescents and adults to teach social and assertiveness skills to prevent and treat depression. A prototype is being developed with researchers from the University of Southern California.
“We think this will be especially helpful for kids, who often are reluctant to see a therapist,” Mohr said.
The program will allow them to practice these behaviors in the safety of virtual space, he said, noting that existing online interventions for teens “look like homework,” while the virtual human feels like a game.
The Northwestern lab will be evaluating a number of social interactions that are hard for teens and adults.
“Having trouble with those situations makes people more vulnerable to depression,” Mohr said. “When people have the confidence and skills to better manage difficult interpersonal interactions, they are less likely to become depressed.”
Previous research also has shown that intervening early in adolescents who have difficulty with social skills can help prevent the first onset of depression, researchers said.
Lastly, the researchers are working on web-based content to help cancer survivors manage stress and depression. They note this is more effective when a human coach checks in on their progress via a phone call or e-mail.
“People are more likely to stick with an online program if they know that someone they like or respect can see what they’re doing,” Mohr said.
His group is creating a social network and collaborative learning environment where peers can serve that function for each other.
“People can get feedback from the group, share goals and check in with members if someone has stayed offline for too long,” he said.
Source: Northwestern University