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Techno-Drugs: Treating Mental Illnesses with Smartphones

Using Digital Biomarkers as a Predictor of Mental Health

Anyone who has taken a basic psychology course has probably heard of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). It’s basically a big book of every mental and neuropsychiatric disorder that psychiatrists use to diagnose and treat patients. A quick glance at the DSM, however, will reveal that a majority of the symptoms of these disorders are self-reported, and often times, the lines are so blurry that you could convince yourself that you have at least one if not several of the disorders listed!

The truth is, we know very little about the cause of mental illnesses and disorders, let alone how to treat them. Moreover, unlike physical illnesses, mental illnesses are not obvious to the outside observer, often times making those that suffer from them the victims of stigma and unfair judgement. People don’t think twice about saying they have a doctor’s appointment, but most are afraid to admit that they have a therapist or a psychiatrist.

According to data published by the National Institute for Mental Health, nearly 1 in 5 Americans suffer from mental health issues. Furthermore, in 2017, out of all the adults diagnosed with any kind of mental illness, only 42.6% received treatment.

Clearly, mental health is a big problem for modern society, and not nearly enough people are receiving the treatment they should be getting.

So what’s the hold up? Where are we falling short?

  1. Lack of access to treatment
  2. Delayed detection of the onset of illnesses
  3. Lack of objective criteria and measurements
  4. Problems with adequate treatment

In order to solve the impending mental health crisis, we need a solution that is cheap, easily accessible, effective, and devoid of any stigma.

Mindstrong is a company based in San Francisco that is attempting to reform the way we diagnose and treat neuropsychiatric disorders, all with a device that is universally accessible these days: a smartphone.

Originally inspired by the use of “user-entity behavioral analytics” in the cyber-security world, which helps identify hackers by the way they type, Mindstrong is using the way we interact with our smartphones to develop user profiles and detect changes in our mental states.

Surprisingly, the way we interact with our smartphones lends us more information about our mental state than we think. By focusing on how we are doing instead of what we are doing, Mindstrong analyzes everything from our taps and scrolls to our typing patterns, extracting these digital biomarkers and using machine learning algorithms to detect patterns in behavior. Any deviation from the pattern associated with the user profile could indicate when the user is likely to relapse intro depression, suffer from suicidal tendencies, experience an anxiety attack, etc..

Mindstrong is still in the R&D phase, but the initial research looks promising so far. In a study that is now available on their website, seven days of smartphone interaction was analyzed for 27 people in the attempt to identify digital biomarkers associated for cognitive functions. After that week-long period, the algorithm was successfully able to identify a cluster of digital biomarkers that mapped to cognitive functions like working memory, executive control, language, and memory.

These objective metrics offer a far more promising future for the diagnoses of mental health issues. Instead of waiting weeks to see whether a drug is effective, often times withstanding several side effects in the process, Mindstrong’s product could easily track and quantify a user’s progress, providing feedback on the treatment’s effectiveness while simultaneously encouraging the user, a factor that is often overlooked when treating mental illnesses. In fact, in most cases, progress and recovery is visible to everyone but the patients, so giving them quantified progress is crucial.

The end goal here was never to replace medical professionals but to merely make healthcare more accessible and efficient, allowing healthcare professionals to use this as a tool to better treat their patients. Mindstrong’s platform, coupled with the expertise of scientists and psychiatrists, addresses some of the current challenges we face in treating mental illnesses, and hopefully, if this gets approval as an effective treatment, we could get more people the medical attention and care that they need.



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