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Scientists at Northwestern University's school of medicine are inventing virtual technologies to treat depression and other mood disorders. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

Scientists at a U.S. university are developing new technologies to treat depression and other disorders — including a mood-detecting smart phone that will call to check up on you.

The researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago say the new inventions could allow patients to bypass traditional weekly therapy sessions, and offer immediate support and accessibility to a much larger population.

"These new approaches could offer fundamentally new treatment options to people who are unable to access traditional services or who are uncomfortable with standard psychotherapy," said psychologist David Mohr, director of the new Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School.  

"They also can be offered at significantly lower costs, which makes them more viable in an era of limited resources," Mohr said.

The projects at the centre include:

  • Smart phone that detects your mood.

Using technology called Mobilyze!, a smart phone has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression after being tested in a small pilot study. The technology spots symptoms of depression by reading sensor data within the phone to interpret a person's location, activity level, social context and mood. The phone learns your usual patterns, such as how often you make phone calls and get e-mails. It can detect if you are not doing those things and if you may be isolated at home alone. It will then send you a message suggesting you call or see friends. "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."

  • Medicine bottle that tracks pill use.

A medicine bottle is being developed to track a patient's daily dose of antidepressant medication with a reminder to take it. It is part of a system that includes a mobile app that monitors the patient's symptoms and medication side effects, and will provide tailored advice to manage problems. The information is then sent to the doctor with a recommendation, such as a change in the dose or drug. The system also will be used to improve medication compliance in patients with schizophrenia and HIV. "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 said. "This pill dispenser addresses both issues."

  • Virtual coaches to teach teens social skills.

The prototype for a virtual coach to role-play with teens to teach social and assertiveness skills to prevent and treat depression is being developed with researchers from the University of Southern California. It feels like a game, making it more likely for teens to engage, in contrast to existing online interventions that look like homework, said Mohr. "When people have the confidence and skills to better manage difficult interpersonal interactions, they are less likely to become depressed."

  • Web-based program for cancer survivors.

An online social network is being developed to help cancer survivors support each other to manage stress and depression. "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 said. "People can get feedback from the group, share goals and check in with members if someone has stayed offline for too long."