I stumbled across the most novel use of technology yesterday. A new center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is inventing web-based, mobile and virtual technologies to treat depression and other mood disorders.
Imagine having a smart phone that senses when you’re feeling down and nudges you to get out of the house or to contact friends. Or a medicine bottle that reminds you to take your antidepressant and tells your doctor if the dose needs adjusting. What will they think of next?
Both technologies are in development at Northwestern’s new Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, a National Institutes of Health-funded center.
The smart phone and other projects will offer immediate support to people with mental health problems and access to large populations in place of traditional weekly therapy sessions.
“We’re inventing new ways technology can help people with mental health problems,” says psychologist David Mohr, director of the new center and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School. “The potential to reduce or even prevent depression is enormous.”
The new approaches could offer treatment options to people unable to access traditional services or who are uncomfortable with standard psychotherapy. They also can be offered at significantly lower cost.
Here are a few of the technologies they’re working on:
Smart phone. A smart phone spots symptoms of depression by harnessing all the sensor data within the phone to interpret a person’s location, activity level (via an accelerometer), social context and mood.
If the phone – which learns your usual patterns — senses you’re isolated, it will send you a suggestion to call or see friends. The technology is called Mobilyze! and has been tested in a small pilot study. It helped reduce symptoms of depression.
“By prompting people to increase behaviors that are pleasurable or rewarding, we believe that Mobilyze! will improve mood,” Mohr said. “It creates a positive feedback loop. Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again. Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral.”
Pill dispenser. A medicine bottle now being developed will track if you forgot your daily dose of antidepressant and remind you to take it. The technology addresses the common problem of patients who quickly stop taking their prescribed medications.
“People whose depression is being treated by primary care doctors often don’t do very well, partly because patients don’t take their medications and partly because the doctors don’t follow up as frequently as they should to optimize the medication and dosage when necessary,” Mohr says. “This pill dispenser addresses both issues.”
The bottle is part of a MedLink system, which will include a mobile app that monitors the patient’s depressive symptoms and any medication side effects and will provide tailored advice to manage problems. The information is then sent to the physician or health care provider with a recommendation, such as a change in the dose or drug.
Cancer support. Web-based content to help cancer survivors manage stress and depression is more effective when a human coach checks in on their progress via a phone call or e-mail.
“People are more likely to stick with an online program if they know that someone they like or respect can see what they’re doing,” Mohr says. His group is creating a closed social network and collaborative learning environment where peers can serve that function for each other.
“People can get feedback from the group, share goals and check in with members if someone has stayed offline for too long,” Mohr says.
For more information on these technologies and others visit www.cbits.northwestern.edu/