New tech provides early warning for depression

'Affective computing' measures subtle changes in stress and mental health

'Affective computing' measures subtle changes in stress and mental health

Rosalind Picard's lab is working on wearables that detect early signs of depression. (Pixabay)
Listen12:47

The are lots of examples of how various wearables can track and monitor your activity and physical health, all of which provide tangible clues that can be measured.

But what about mental health? The physical manifestations of depression often are a lot more subtle than, say,  an elevated heart rate.

That's where Rosalind Picard comes in. She is the founder and director of the Affective Computing research group at the MIT Media Lab, and she explores how technology might be able to monitor and reveal clues about our mental well-being.
Rosalind Picard

She spoke to Spark host Nora Young as part of the health technology special.

One of the things that you've researched is the potential for using sensors to monitor early signs of depression. Can you tell me a bit about that?

You know the old metaphor of putting the frog on the stovetop in a pot of water and turning up the heat? Well, the frog doesn't have a good temperature sensor. So the way the story goes, the frog swims around and kind of enjoys the warm water. And next thing you know, the frog is cooked.

The human wearing the wearable sensors could be protected from what the frog goes through—because the wearable sensors, working in conjunction with your smartphone, can start to see subtle changes that are kind of like a very sophisticated temperature sensor.

These could be early warning signs that you might be sliding down that path to depression. Even before you start to feel depressed, you might get a little indicators of things you could do to prevent yourself from going in that direction. And so our thinking is, with these wearables, we could prevent half or maybe even 80 per cent of cases of depression from ever happening.

We know that people with very mild forms of depression benefit from exercise. So would that be, for example, "We're noticing that you're sliding toward this trend—you might want to get some more exercise." Is that the kind of thing that you're imagining?

Yes, exactly. And also learning what that is for each person. For some people, exercise and mood seem very coupled. We have been seeing that regularity of sleep is hugely associated with mental health. So if [the wearable tracker] sees you going from being a regular sleeper, to gradually being more and more irregular, it might want to give you an early warning. Maybe it will suggest other things you could do to improve your mood, like a little bit more time spent with friends who really matter to you, or a little bit more reflection time.

So can we take evidence and data from your own life and personalize something that really helps you—a kind of a preventative illness coach. It's true health care. True health care doesn't treat you when you're sick, although obviously that is important. True health care helps you stay healthy.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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