The age of mental health-tech: Can the cause become the cure?
London is a city where travel genocide is a daily pursuit. As we increasingly turn to our smartphones to help us kill the commute, we should be aware the digital fix can be costly to our health.
Even social media, cultivated for you-doing-you, comes with a kick. US psychologist Jean M Twenge believes it contributes to a rise in low self-esteem that has resulted in millennials being on the ‘brink of a mental-health crisis’, and they’re not alone; anyone who has increased screen time is susceptible.
In 2010 psychologists at the University of Leeds found links between excessive internet use and depression. Even Justin Rosenstein, creator of the Facebook ‘like’ button, has spoken out against its ‘bright dings of pseudo pleasure.’
But in among all the back lit gloom there is a new wave of development concerned as much with your mental health as your BMI.
Technology, in fact, offers a tremendous opportunity to help improve mental health, and ‘health-tech’ is set to be one of the fastest growth businesses over the next decade. As algorithms are developed that identify previously hard to detect biomarkers (body patterns that recognise medical signs present in many illnesses), we are speeding to more efficient diagnosis.
Here, Balance investigates seven key areas along the health/tech axis. Soon you’ll be able to OD on your favourite method of preventative madness.
It may be possible not just to use A.I. to identify susceptibility to mental illness but also to establish how best to treat it. In 2012, Dr Rudolf Uher and colleagues at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, tested how different depressive symptoms could predict clinical outcome.
By doing so, they were able to predict the efficacy of the treatment. The next stage of development should see matching preventative steps with the patient in advance of beginning treatment, a potentially huge leap forward in prevention over cure.
For more information, go to the lancet.com and search under ‘Psychiatry’ for articles and systematic reviews on the link between psychiatry and various health conditions.
When we think of meditation, we tend to think of stepping away from technology, but virtual reality can actually help us to create a more focused, inward experience.
Guided meditation through apps like Oculus, GuidedMeditationVR and Deepak Chopra’s Finding Your True Self offer 360° immersive experiences with sounds and sights stimulation designed to prompt deep states of relaxation.
Through VR, wearable tech, sight, soundtrack and voiceover are all built to help maintain focus for a fully engrossed practice.
To find out more, there’s a guide well worth investigating at Guided Meditation VR.
The self-tracking movement has blossomed. Sleep monitoring, diet logging and mood journals are about to be augmented by the era of mind tracking.
Developers of these brain wearables, essentially headsets with electrodes, claim the devices can help detect stress, improve focus and measure mood, by examining brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG).
Tracking cardiovascular and retinal movements provides opportunities to answer questions around concentration and mood. A study by Lancaster University found retinal tracking can be used to help detect illnesses such as ADHD, schizophrenia and addiction and they believe there is huge potential for ‘eye movement analysis for mental health monitoring’.
Keep your eye on the ball for more developments.
APPLIANCE OF SCIENCE
Epigenetics, the study of hereditary genes, focuses on what causes adjustments in gene expression patterns. These changes are a result of environmental and lifestyle factors so by adjusting your lifestyle and environment, your gene patterns could change.
The UK’s 100,000 Genomes project is a DNA sequencing initiative that seeks to analyse data to investigate how best to treat patients with cancer. If successful, it could revolutionise the way patients are diagnosed and treated.
No-one has ever attempted whole genome sequencing at this scale before as part of everyday care in hospitals.
Rather than offering a way simply to fix problems, this next-generation tech provides data indicating where changes could be made to both prevent health issues and aid in the recovery process.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Having a device not only on you, but also in you, might sound like something from a dystopian narrative, but it’s fast becoming reality. Prior to their demise, Jawbone had developed an ingestible tracker used to monitor bodily functions including digestion, alcohol levels and heart rate.
In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has approved the Proteus Ingestible Sensor, a device embedded into tablets and which, once swallowed, tracks health patterns and medication treatment effectiveness, leading to more informed healthcare decisions. Another innovation is the PillCam COLON – a tiny pill that takes a series of photos and videos as it passes through your digestive system, and transmits the footage to a doctor’s computer.
The problem with digestibles is that what goes in, must come out. Research (on pigs) is being used to see whether devices can be held in the body for longer, so health professionals can track the body over time. The results seem promising.
Researchers at the University of Vermont undertook an experiment in which they looked for visual cues of depressive traits from Instagram photos, then taught a machine to do the same. They claim the algorithm can identify depression with 70% accuracy.
Chris Danforth, a professor at the University of Vermont who co-led the new study with Andrew Reece of Harvard University, said: ‘This algorithm can sometimes detect depression before a clinical diagnosis is made.’
A BIT EVEN FITTER
Looking just like your fitness tracker, Spire, a device billed as ‘fitbit for the brain’ clips onto your clothing and monitors your breath to identify when you are feeling stressed or calm.
The app iSee allows clients and counsellors to monitor the frequency and duration of your phone use, using a GPS tracker, a light sensor, an accelerometer (to capture physical movements) and a touchscreen.
It takes all of this information and correlates it to moods and emotions, to identify what factors increase a patient’s vulnerability or resilience. They found the software ‘provided behavioural markers strongly related to depressive symptom severity.’