Phone app can identify behaviors linked to depression, study shows

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Mobile phones may be able to identify whether an individual is likely suffering from depression, according to a study released Wednesday.

Behaviors linked to depression include spending more at home, using one’s phone at higher than average usage rates and having an erratic schedule, said the study by researchers at Northwestern University and published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

Depression affects about 14.8 million U.S. adults, according to data from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and health care professionals often fail to identify the symptoms, delaying treatment for months or years, the report said.

“The significance of this is we can detect if a person has depressive symptoms and the severity of those symptoms without asking them any questions,” senior author David Mohr, director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a press release.

“We now have an objective measure of behavior related to depression. And we’re detecting it passively. Phones can provide data unobtrusively and with no effort on the part of the user,” Mohr added.

Mobile phones have become ubiquitous and can continuously monitor a person’s physical activity, location and environment, researchers said.

For the report, a mobile phone application called “Purple Robot” was attached to the 28 participants’ phones for two weeks to collect GPS location and phone usage data. Half of the participants suffered from mild to severe depression and the other 14 had no signs of depressive symptoms.

The GPS data could be used to determine whether a person was in a stationary state, including at home or in the office, or in a transition state like walking in the street, the report said. It was also used to determine where participants spent most of their time.

Another factor that researchers looked at within the GPS data was to what extent a person’s movements followed a 24-hour or circadian rhythm. For example, a person who leaves for work and returns around the same time every day has a high level of circadian movement, according to the study.

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