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Can a smartphone sense depression?

New smartphone technology called Mobilyze is being developed to make personal mood assessments and help people stave off depression.

New smartphone technology is in the works that should be able to tell whether a person is depressed.


The idea behind Mobilyze--under development by researchers at Northwestern University--is to create a virtual therapist to monitor a person's activity over several days and then make a mood assessment.

"We're trying to develop individual algorithms for each user that can determine specific states," lead researcher and psychologist David Mohr said in an interview on WBBM radio in Chicago.

These algorithms would include people's location, activity, social context, what they're doing, and their mood, in order to determine whether they are behaving normally or if they seem depressed.

If the smartphone concludes that the person is depressed, it will help the individual alert family and friends. "It can provide them an automated text message, or an automated phone call to make a suggestion to give somebody a call or get out of the house," Mohr said.

Mobilyze uses data from sensors already embedded in smartphones, such as GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and accelerometers. The goal is to use this data to develop an automated system to detect people's moods, which could be helpful to those who are prone to ignoring symptoms of depression.

So far, Mohr has tested the smartphone on eight patients and says that it has helped in easing their depression. "They all had a major depressive disorder when they started, and they were all both clinically and statistically better at the end of the treatment," he said.

This isn't the only type of mobile technology geared toward health, human emotions, and mood. An app called MoodKit also uses cognitive-therapy techniques to improve people's moods by offering more than 150 mood-lifting activities with tips and examples.

Mohr said he has plans to do more widespread testing this summer, so the Mobilyze technology is on the way.