Female psychologist listening to young lady during personal session, depression.

US researchers use Apple devices for study on mental health

Image credit: Motortion/Dreamstime

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have launched a three-year study, in collaboration with Apple, to investigate how gadgets can help detect and treat depression and anxiety.

Co-designed by UCLA researchers and Apple, the study aims to measure sleep, physical activity, heart rate and “daily routines” to see if there is a correlation between these metrics and symptoms associated with depression and anxiety. 

Apple said it will provide study participants with iPhones, Apple Watches and a Beddit sleep-monitoring device, a sleep tracker developed by a start-up that Apple acquired in 2017.

According to the researchers, making the connection between quantifiable data and symptoms of anxiety and depression could enable health care providers to note warning signs and prevent the onset of depressive episodes, track the effectiveness of treatment and identify causes of depression.

“This collaboration, which harnesses UCLA’s deep research expertise and Apple’s innovative technology, has the potential to transform behavioural health research and clinical care,” said Dr Nelson Freimer, a UCLA professor of psychiatry. “Current approaches to treating depression rely almost entirely on the subjective recollections of depression sufferers. This is an important step for obtaining objective and precise measurements that guide both diagnosis and treatment.”

The study is part of UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge, an initiative involving researchers from across disciplines to identify genetic and environmental factors that contribute to depression, understand the biological changes that depression causes in the brain and body, accelerate progress in diagnosis and treatment and end the stigma associated with the disorder.

Its pilot phase, involving 150 participants recruited from UCLA’s Health Medical Centre, began earlier this week. That will then scale up to roughly 3,000 participants during the main part of the study, drawn both from UCLA Health patients and the UCLA student body, which will take place from 2021 through 2023.

The researchers said participants will be required to download the research app to their personal iPhones and will also receive an Apple Watch and Beddit sleep monitor, which they will use for the duration of the study. Through the app, participants will share relevant information in periodic clinical interviews and questionnaires, as well as from data obtained from the phone, watch and sleep monitor.   

Freimer emphasised that ensuring the privacy and security of study participants’ data remains a high priority for both UCLA and Apple. He added that UCLA will process and maintain study data in a secure environment, with access limited to members of the UCLA research team. They will then analyse the data only after they are coded and stripped of names and other contact information.

The study comes as the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives and spurred a focus on anxiety and depression. Physical distancing requirements have also made scientific research a challenge. Therefore, UCLA and Apple designed the study whereby all aspects of participation can be accomplished remotely

The pandemic has heightened anxiety and depression globally and has increased awareness of the importance of behavioural health to overall wellbeing,” Freimer said. “At the same time, physical distancing requirements have limited in-person mental health assessment and treatment, leading to expanded use and acceptance of telehealth. These changes highlight the importance of incorporating technologies like those to be tested in this study into clinical research and eventually into practice.”

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