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Software Capable of Tracking Behavioral Changes may Help People with Depression

Photo By Antonio Guillem via Shutterstock


Depression can cause numerous physical consequences, such as erratic sleeping habits, appetite loss, constant fatigue, and headaches. As depression progresses, long-term physical effects including weight loss and oversleeping or hypersomnia are likely to occur. A team of healthcare professionals and scientists developed an app capable of assessing behavior to help people with their depression.

The app is called HealthRhythms that measures the behavioral rhythms of the person constantly without being intrusive. It is capable of collecting data from smartphones, wearables devices, and devices connected to the Internet of Things passively to evaluate the mental condition of the user. A machine learning technique makes the collected data clinically relevant. The use of the application complies with the sensing and processing of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

The assessment of someone symptomatic of depression usually experiences a disruption in their behavior. If the disruption last for two to three weeks or longer, the emotional well-being is likely compromised. So, the app analyzes the person’s sleeping habits and speech patterns to detect any signs of depression. Moreover, smartphone usage is also taken into account to determine any cognitive changes. Physical activities, such as walking speed, usual route, and time spent at home are also measured, which can indicate either a manic or depressive episode.

“Lots of apps out there try to engage and motivate alternate behaviors, and offer lots of feedback. But this can overwhelm the user. Our long-term vision is to make the interventions disappear into the background, modifying a person’s behavior with minimal effort by the user because we think it will make treatment more effective,” said Dr. Tanzeem Choudhury, CEO of HealthRhythms.

All of these factors assessed by the app are also examined by mental health experts because depression is a complex illness. Depression can be classified into two categories through type and severity.

1. Dysthymia or chronic depression is characterized by a persistent sad disposition that leads to a bad mood, virtually every day. While it is considered less severe than major depression, dysthymia can cause many issues, such as lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness, and problems with concentration. However, the symptoms last longer than major depression.

2. Cyclothymia is an uncommon mood disorder described by the shifting between mild depression and hypomania, a lesser form of mania.

3. Bipolar disorder or manic depression distinguished from cyclothymia by the degree of mood swings. In bipolar disorder, the manic episode has more energy while the depressive episode has more lethargy. The alternating between mania and depression can last for days to months.

4. Seasonal affective disorder or SAD usually strikes people during the winter season. Many people suffer depression due to the lack of sunlight, physical exercise, and fresh air in colder months.

5. Postpartum depression only happens after a woman gives birth to her children. Obvious symptoms of PPD include extreme sadness, crying spells, and irritability. This can occur between three months and one year after childbirth.

6. Psychotic depression is a major depression with psychotic tendencies that requires immediate treatment. About 20 percent of people with major depression also exhibit psychotic symptoms, such as delusions and hallucinations.

Severity should also be taken into account when assessing depression in people. There are three severity levels of depression – mild, moderate, and severe.

- Mild depression is obvious as the person exhibits less interest in doing activities they like and motivation to work. They can also show signs of unusual irritability.

- Moderate depression can impact work, personal, and social life. People with moderate depression show lack interest and motivation, low confidence and self-esteem, and less productiveness.

- Major depression requires immediate attention because of self-destruction tendencies. People suffering from major depression are prone to hopelessness and despair.

Any changes in behavior and lifestyle are recorded and analyzed by the app via machine learning. If a certain change, such as spending more time indoors without apparent reason persists, the app can suggest activities to encourage interest and motivation. The app can also recommend a sleeping pattern that matches the person’s body clock, which is compatible with their work schedule and free days.

If the app detects the persistent, unfavorable changes in behavior that will lead the person into depression, it will send alerts to their doctors. The alerts contain the essential information that indicates risk of depression. The technology also points to precision medicine to address the causal roots of depression per individual. Unlike with traditional methods, precision medicine can be personalized to match the patient’s personality, diet, and lifestyle. It also accommodates the patient’s physical information, such as genetic background, hormone levels, and pre-existing chronic conditions.

“Precision medicine is a big initiative. We’re getting more and more information about the biological makeup of unique individuals, how disease manifests in individuals and how treatments work at the level of the individual,” said Dr. Choudhury.

The company received a $2.1-million grant from the National Institutes of Health. It is meant for the development of an automated recommendation engine that can deliver real-time health interventions and behavioral change suggestions, which can also be personalized.

[메디컬리포트=​Ralph Chen 기자]

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