Smartphones may act like pocket therapists in the future, intuiting when you are depressed and nudging you to call or see friends.
"We're inventing new ways technology can help people with mental health problems," said psychologist David Mohr at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "The potential to reduce or even prevent depression is enormous."
Smartphones are now regularly armed with 35 to 40 sensors. Many of those sensors could help read a person's mood. For instance, smartphones can use GPS and your address book to establish whether you are at work, home or a friend's; employ accelerometers to figure out how much you are moving, and look at your level of email and phone activity to see how social you are.
By determining your usual pattern of activity from such data, a smartphone could gauge your mood. If it determines that you are isolated, it might suggest you go for a stroll, or remind you to follow through with plans with friends.
"It creates a positive feedback loop. Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again," Mohr said. "Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral."
The system, known as Mobilyze!, can be delivered via mobile phone, interactive website or email.
"By prompting people to increase behaviors that are pleasurable or rewarding, we believe that Mobilyze! will improve mood," Mohr said in a statement. "These new approaches could offer fundamentally new treatment options to people who are unable to access traditional services or who are uncomfortable with standard psychotherapy. They also can be offered at significantly lower costs, which makes them more viable in an era of limited resources."
The researchers hope to help treat major depressive disorder, which afflicts nearly 7 percent of the population annually.
"A lot of electronic intervention systems that try to help patients, whether over the Web or on mobile phones, often require a fair amount of activity on the part of the patients — they have to log their activities, mood, social context and so on — and all that work is something that most people can't integrate into their lives effectively," Mohr told InnovationNewsDaily.
"My feeling is that if we can develop interventions that fit more smoothly into the fabric of life, [people are] more likely to use them. So we're developing systems that identify when people are at risk for feeling worse or when engaged in activities that are likely to help them, and contact them then instead."
In a small eight-week pilot study in 2011, seven adults suffering from depression were asked to regularly enter their mood, as well as what their location was, what kind of activity they were engaged in and what people they were with, to help learn what might trigger negative moods. The investigators found that volunteers had reduced symptoms of depression over time, with nearly all saying that Mobilyze! helped them recognize and modify distressing thoughts and behaviors.
"That study was very encouraging for us, but we still have a lot of work ahead," Mohr said.
The researchers are now adapting their app for use with the Android mobile-device operating system. "In the next month or so, we'll begin lab usability testing on that system, and hope to begin a field trial with it sometime this summer," Mohr said.