Researchers use smartphone data to track symptoms of depression

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A new smartphone app can tell if someone is depressed, according to a Northwestern University study.

Researchers looked at GPS location and other data to determine whether smartphone users were isolated and less engaged. Those with depression tend to stay at home more often and don’t engage in things that used to give them pleasure.

Professor Stephen Schueller and his team at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine developed the application that uses data collected from smartphone sensors to detect these behavioral changes.

“We created a software program that allows us to collect the information off of people’s phones, look at their GPS location and how much they’re using their phones, how much they’re calling, and then use that information to predict levels of depression in people who have this software application installed on their phones,” said Schueller.

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The app predicted depression among a small group of 28 users with 87 percent accuracy. Information collected this way could help doctors identify and monitor those at risk for depression, Schueller said.

Ian Bennett, assistant professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s department of family medicine, studies depression among low-income women who are pregnant and says the vast majority of his patients use smartphones.

“They will sit and talk to me, but I sometimes wonder if they’d rather be texting me even if we’re sitting in the same room together,” said Bennett. “So using this technology is just smart medicine.”

But Bennett said making smartphone data available doesn’t mean doctors will find it easy to use. He says further study could determine whether the data is useful in the clinical setting.

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