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There might be as many as 1,000 smart­phone “biomark­ers” for de­pres­sion, said Dr. Thomas Insel, for­mer head of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Men­tal Health and now a leader in the smart­phone psy­chi­a­try move­ment.

Re­searchers are test­ing ex­per­i­men­tal apps that use ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to try to pre­dict de­pres­sion episodes or po­ten­tial self-harm.

“We are track­ing the equiv­a­lent of a heart­beat for the hu­man brain,” said Dr. Alex Leow, an app de­vel­oper and as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try and bio­engi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois’ Chicago cam­pus.

At least, that’s the goal. There are tech­ni­cal and eth­i­cal kinks to work out — in­clud­ing pri­vacy is­sues and mak­ing sure kids grant per­mis­sion to be mon­i­tored so closely. De­vel­op­ers say proven, com­mer­cially avail­able mood-de­tect­ing apps are likely years — but not decades — away.

“Peo­ple of­ten feel that these things are creepy,” be­cause of the tech in­dus­try’s sur­rep­ti­tious track­ing of on­line habits for com­mer­cial pur­poses, said Univer­sity of Ore­gon psy­chol­o­gist Nick Allen.

Us­ing smart­phones as men­tal ill­ness de­tec­tors would re­quire in­formed con­sent from users to in­stall an app, “and they could with­draw per­mis­sion at any time,” said Allen, one of the cre­ators of an app that is be­ing tested on young peo­ple who have at­tempted sui­cide.

De­pres­sion af­fects about 3 mil­lion U.S. teens, and rates have climbed in the past decade. Thir­teen per­cent of 12- to 17-year-olds had de­pres­sion in 2017, up from 8 per­cent in 2010, U.S. gov­ern­ment data show. One in 10 col­lege-aged Amer­i­cans is af­fected.

Sui­cide has risen to the sec­ond lead­ing cause of death for ages 10 to 34. Rates among teen girls dou­bled from 2007 to 2015, climb­ing to 5 per 100,000. Among boys, rates jumped 30 per­cent, to 14 in 100,000.

A re­cent study sug­gested a par­al­lel rise in smart­phone use is likely a con­tribut­ing fac­tor.

Peo­ple with men­tal ill­ness typ­i­cally get treat­ment “when they’re in cri­sis and very late in the course of an ill­ness. We want to have a method to iden­tify the ear­li­est signs,” in an ob­jec­tive way, Insel said.

After a livestreamed sui­cide, Face­book trained its AI sys­tems to flag cer­tain words or phrases in on­line posts that could in­di­cate im­mi­nent self-harm. Friends’ com­ments ex­press­ing con­cern about the user’s well­be­ing are part of the equa­tion.

The on­go­ing re­search in­cludes:

• A Stan­ford Univer­sity study in­volv­ing about 200 teens, in­clud­ing kids at risk for de­pres­sion be­cause of bul­ly­ing, fam­ily cir­cum­stances or other life stresses. As part of the re­search, teens who have been tracked since grade school get an ex­per­i­men­tal phone app that sur­veys them three times daily for two weeks with ques­tions about their mood.

Re­searchers are com­bin­ing those an­swers with pas­sive smart­phone data, in­clud­ing how ac­tive or seden­tary kids are, to iden­tify any changes that might be linked with fu­ture de­pres­sion.

Study par­tic­i­pant Lau­rel Fos­ter, 15, ac­knowl­edges feel­ing stress over aca­demics and “the usual” teen friend­ship pres­sures and says de­pres­sion is ram­pant at her San Fran­cisco high school. She said us­ing the smart­phone app felt a bit like be­ing spied on, but with so many on­line sites al­ready track­ing users’ habits “one more isn’t re­ally a big dif­fer­ence.”

• At UCLA, as part of a broader ef­fort to bat­tle cam­pus de­pres­sion launched in 2017, re­searchers are of­fer­ing on­line coun­sel­ing and an ex­per­i­men­tal phone app to stu­dents who show signs of at least mild de­pres­sion on a screen­ing test. About 250 fresh­men agreed to use the app in the first year. Per­sonal sens­ing data col­lected from the app is be­ing an­a­lyzed to see how it cor­re­lates with any wors­en­ing or im­prove­ment in de­pres­sion symp­toms seen in in­ter­net ther­apy.

Sopho­more Alyssa Lizarraga, 19, has had de­pres­sion since high school in Whit­tier, Calif. She has wor­ried that she’s “ad­dicted” to her phone and spends a lot of time on so­cial me­dia sites.

But us­ing smart­phones in a pos­i­tive way for men­tal health might help nudge peo­ple to seek early treat­ment, if they could see how their phone use showed signs of de­pres­sion, she said.

• At the Univer­sity of Illi­nois’ Chicago cam­pus, re­searchers study­ing de­pres­sion and ma­nia in bipo­lar dis­or­der are us­ing crowd­sourc­ing to test their ex­per­i­men­tal phone app. Any­one can down­load the free app, and nearly 2,000 have so far, agree­ing to let the re­searchers con­tin­u­ously track things such as typ­ing speed, num­ber of key­strokes and use of spellcheck.

• Mind­strong, a Palo Alto, Calif., tech health com­pany co­founded by Insel, the for­mer NIH of­fi­cial, is test­ing a “dig­i­tal phe­no­typ­ing” app in sev­eral stud­ies. Insel thinks the tech­nol­ogy has prom­ise to trans­form psy­chi­a­try, but that the most im­por­tant ques­tion is whether it can be used to im­prove pa­tient health.

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