Apple is working on new technology that could be used to diagnose mental illnesses such as depression and cognitive decline, insiders claim.
In partnership with the University of California at Los Angeles and biotech company Biogen, Apple hopes to get more out of the health-related sensors in its devices.
The company already has a wide range of health-related technology, including heart, sleep and activity monitoring via the Apple Watch and iPhone.
Insiders, in conversation with the Wall Street NewsI’d say researchers will use data from iPhone sensors to look for digital signals associated with certain mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety, and feed them into an algorithm.
This should be able to reliably predict depression and other conditions and provide the basis for new features in a future version of Apple’s iOS operating system.
Apple is working on new technology that could be used to diagnose mental illnesses like depression and cognitive decline, insiders claim
What is depression?
While it’s normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression can feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months.
Depression can affect anyone at any age and is quite common – about one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their lives.
Depression is a real health condition that people can’t just ignore or ‘get out’.
Symptoms and effects vary, but may include feeling constantly upset, hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.
It can also cause physical symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, fatigue, a low appetite or sex drive, and even physical pain.
In extreme cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts.
Traumatic events can cause it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.
It’s important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be treated with lifestyle changes, therapy, or medication.
Source: NHS Choices
The details come from two research projects using technology in devices such as iPhones and Apple Watches to predict mental health outcomes.
One, from UCLA, studies stress, anxiety and depression in collaboration with Apple, and has been codenamed “Seabreeze.”
The other, codenamed “Pi,” is the work of Biogen of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was intended to study mild cognitive impairment.
These are early-stage projects, and Apple has yet to confirm the details in the WSJ report whether they will actually result in new iPhone features.
To effectively diagnose a mental illness, a patient must be closely monitored by experts to look for behavioral changes from the norm.
Changes in phone usage can be used in place of these specialists to provide an early indication, especially in areas where specialists may not be widely available.
UCLA says its research into signs of stress, anxiety and depression began with a pilot phase of fall tracking features in the Apple Watch and iPhone in 2020.
The team is expanding to use data from 3,000 people this year and will track and combine data from the iPhone’s camera, keyboard and audio sensors with information from the watch about movement, sleep and vital signs.
It can be facial expressions, how the volunteers speak, how often they go for walks, how well they sleep, as well as heart and breathing rates.
People “close to the survey” told the WSJ they may also be looking at typing speed, the frequency of typos, the content they type, and other points.
These are all thought to be “digital signals” that indicate signs of mental illness.
These large data sets coming from the devices can tell experts things about us that we don’t know about ourselves, including clues about emotions, concentration, energy level, and mood.
In partnership with the University of California at Los Angeles and biotech company Biogen, Apple hopes to get more out of the health-related sensors in its devices
Apple Watches have saved lives before
In April 2017, Casey Bennett of Laytonsville, Maryland, was driving home from school when he was hit by another vehicle, sending him and his Jeep Patriot flying through the air.
Bennett, 22, found himself hanging only by his seat belt in the driver’s seat, with his iPhone too far out of reach to call for help.
However, he recalled that his Apple Watch had an emergency SOS feature and held down the side button to contact the emergency responder, who arrived within six minutes.
Many wearers use the Apple Watch’s heart monitoring capabilities to detect heart problems early.
James Green, 32, said in 2017 that his timepiece notified him of a sudden rise in his heart rate, a sign of a possible pulmonary embolism.
Green had previously suffered a life-threatening blood clot and ran to the hospital, where doctors found a new blood clot in his lungs that could have killed him in minutes if left untreated.
He says the only reason he’s alive is because of that report.
‘Never thought a stupid lil [sic] wrist computer I bought two years ago would save my life,” Green tweeted. “I saw my heart rate go up, eventually got a pulmonary embolism.”
Reports suggest that the UCLA researchers have the volunteers fill out questionnaires about their mental health and look for stress hormones in their hair follicles to see if the data match.
A future app, possibly the Apple Health app, could then warn someone that they are at risk and should seek professional help.
Biogen, meanwhile, is working with a cohort of 20,000 participants who use the iPhone and Apple Watch to track cognitive function over two years.
It hopes this can be used to identify mild cognitive impairment, a condition that often leads to Alzheimer’s disease.
As with the UCLA project, this could result in new iPhone features that could warn people that they are at risk and suggest they seek help sooner than they otherwise would.
According to the UK Office for National Statistics, mental health problems rose during the coronavirus pandemic, especially around depression and anxiety.
About 1 in 5 adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, more than double what was seen before the coronavirus pandemic began.
Rumors have been circulating for several years about Apple’s ambition to bring mental health support to its devices and health services.
With the release of watchOS 8 yesterday, Apple unveiled the Mindfulness app for the Apple Watch, designed to help people “take stock” and breathe.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple Chief Operating Officer, Jeff Williams, has spoken enthusiastically about the company’s potential to tackle rising rates of depression and anxiety around the world.
The head of the health team also spoke about how his devices could be used to support other brain disorders and cognitive decline.
It’s not clear how much tracking and personal data is needed for the technology to work, but it would likely require users to entrust Apple with important and highly sensitive personal information.
Apple says privacy is paramount in all of its products and services, but the company is being closely watched over plans to access user data to alert authorities if it detects evidence of child pornography in photo libraries or data stores.