Sudbury teen recognized for science project to help people people with depression, anxiety

When 16 year-old Nethra Wickramasinghe started working on a science project three years ago, she says she never imagined her idea might actually become a tangible reality. 

Nethra Wickramasinghe is one of five winners from across Canada of the Weston Youth Innovation Award

Sixteen year-old Nethra Wickramasinghe is one of the winners of the 2020 Weston Youth Innovation Award. (Submitted by Nethra Wickramasinghe)

When 16 year-old Nethra Wickramasinghe started working on a science project three years ago, she says she never imagined her idea might actually become a tangible reality. 

The Sudbury teen is one of five students from across the country who has been named a finalist by the Ontario Science Centre for the Weston Youth Innovation Award. 

"I genuinely just thought it was an interesting idea, and I thought I'd like to see where it went, but I had no clue that it would go on to become like this big thing," Wickramasinghe said. 

Wickramasinghe took home a $3,500 prize for her project — a wearable device that detects physiological changes related to depression and anxiety, and connects users with help. And now, she hopes to continue work on the project, with the aim of taking it to clinical trials. 

Psychology and physiology

Wickramasinghe's device, worn on the wrist, measures heart rate, skin tension and temperature, and relays that information to an app that she developed, which detects patterns and changes. The user is alerted if the app detects an irregularity. 

"This might be something such as an increased heart rate or increased skin tension which is linked to sweating and hormonal activity, which are symptoms of anxiety. Or on the other end, like a slower, lethargic state with a slow heart beat which is indicative of depression," Wickramasinghe said.  

Wickramasinghe's prototype monitors heart rate, skin tension and temperature, in order to alert users of irregularities that could be related to depression or anxiety. (Submitted by Nethra Wickramasinghe)

Wickramasinghe says when the user is alerted, they are given strategies to help cope. That might mean suggesting a person take a step back from a stressful or triggering situation, she says, or it could suggest a corrective cognitive behavioural therapy solution.  

"The original intent behind my project was just realizing how prevalent mental illness is in our society, and how we don't have very many solutions that cater towards different socioeconomic levels. And that we really don't have a method of care that is affordable and applicable to a wide demographic, which is something that I really wanted to address." 

Wickramasinghe says her next step will be to take the device to clinical trials and, she hopes, someday release it on the market.

She says working on her project has further developed her interest in psychology, and she hopes to pursue a career in that field. 


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