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Using a smartwatch or an iPhone, Apple seeks to provide a diagnosis of mental health conditions

A new report says Apple is developing a new technology that can help diagnose depression, cognitive decline and other mental illnesses.

By working with UCLA and biotech company Biogen, Apple hopes to make more use of health-related sensors in its devices.

The company already has extensive health-related technology features, including heart, sleep and activity monitoring on its Apple Watch and iPhone phones.

Informed sources say – in an interview with the Wall Street Journal – that researchers will use data from iPhone sensors to search for digital signals associated with some mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, and enter them into an algorithm.

This should be able to reliably predict depression and other conditions, and form the basis for new features in a future version of Apple’s iOS operating system.

The partnership with Biogen is also focused on studying mild cognitive impairment among users, according to several unidentified Apple employees who spoke to the Wall Street Journal in a report published last Tuesday.

The report notes that two research projects related to developing this technology include the University of California project, codenamed Seabreeze, which explores stress, anxiety and depression in partnership with Apple.

Another project by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Biogen, codenamed Pi, has been launched to study MCI.

Apple has yet to confirm the details in the Wall Street Journal report, or if they will actually lead to new features being added to iPhones.

To effectively diagnose a mental health condition, a patient needs close expert monitoring to look for changes in behavior.

Changes in phone use behavior in place of these professionals can be used to give an early indication, especially in areas where specialists may not be widely available.

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UCLA says its research on signs of stress, anxiety and depression has begun in an experimental phase, using fall-tracking features in Apple Watches and iPhones in 2020.

The research team is working to expand this to use data from 3,000 people this year, and will track data from the iPhone’s camera, keyboard and sound sensors, and combine it with information from the watch about movement, sleep and vital signs.

It could include facial expressions, how volunteers talk, how often they go for a walk, how well they sleep as well as their heart and breathing rates.

People “close to the study” told the Wall Street Journal that they might also be looking at writing speed, frequency of typos, and the content they write, among other points.

These are all believed to be “digital signals” that indicate signs of a mental health condition.

Reports suggest that researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, ask volunteers to fill out questionnaires about their mental health and look for stress hormones in their hair follicles to see if the data matches up.

A future app, such as Apple Health, could warn a user that they are at risk and should seek professional care.

Meanwhile, Biogen is working with a group of 20,000 participants using iPhones and Apple Watches to track cognitive function over a two-year period.

She hopes this will be used to identify mild cognitive impairment, a condition that often leads to Alzheimer’s disease.

Source: The Wall Street Journal