Apple wants to monitor mental health from iPhone data

Apple is working on technology to help diagnose depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline using iPhones, with the aim of finding tools that can expand its burgeoning health portfolio, according to the Wall Street Journal. Using a range of sensor data that includes mobility, physical activity, sleep patterns, writing behavior, and more, the researchers hope to be able to extrapolate digital signals associated with target conditions so that algorithms can be created to reliably detect them.

Other measurements may include analysis of facial expressions and heart and respiration rates. All processing is done via the device, without sending data to Apple's servers. Apple hopes this will become the basis for unique features for its devices. The effort stems from the company's announced research partnerships. The study with UCLA is codenamed Seabreeze, and it studies stress, anxiety, and depression. While the study with the drug company Biogen is codenamed Pi, it studies MCI.

UCLA is studying stress, anxiety, and depression through Apple Watch and iPhone data of up to 3,000 volunteers being tracked in a study starting this year. The pilot phase, which began in 2020, recorded data from 150 participants. The researchers compare data captured from iPhone and Apple Watch sensors with questionnaires that participants fill out about how they feel.

They are also said to measure the level of the stress hormone cortisol in the participants' hair follicles. The company and UCLA announced the three-year study in August 2020.

Another research project in progress may be a factor in this company's project. Apple and drug company Biogen said in January that they were working on a two-year study to monitor cognitive function and possibly detect mild cognitive impairment, which has the potential to progress to Alzheimer's disease.

The plan aims to track about 20,000 participants, about half of whom have a high risk of developing cognitive impairment. The company also has a research project with Duke University that aims to create an algorithm to detect autism in childhood, including using an iPhone's camera to monitor how young children focus.

Your Apple phone may notice you're depressed before you even know it

If data from studies align with symptoms of depression or anxiety, the company can use it to create a feature that warns users if they notice signs of a mental health condition. And the iPhone could prompt users to seek care, which could be important because early detection can improve long-term quality of life.

The company and its partners are still in the early stages of this work. So it will likely be at least a few years before the company adds mental health monitoring features to the iPhone. There is no guarantee that the search may lead to such features.

Some previous studies have suggested that people with certain conditions use devices differently than other people. It is not yet clear whether developers can build algorithms that can reliably and accurately detect mental health conditions. Health has been an increasing focus for the company over the past few years. So there is a chance for features based on this research to eventually emerge.

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