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UCLA, Apple Partner on Depression Study

Apple Watch

(FancyCrave1, Pixabay)

4 Aug. 2020. Researchers from University of California in Los Angeles and Apple Corp. are beginning a study of wearable and home technologies to detect depression. The project aims to make better use of technology in uncovering depression, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic when in-person diagnostics and observations are difficult to achieve.

Depression is a widespread condition, which when it becomes persistent or severe, is called major depression, and can interfere with normal family and work life, and lead to disability. National Institute of Mental Health estimates in 2017, 17.3 million adults in the U.S., or 7.1 percent of the adult population, suffered a major depressive episode in the previous 12 months. UCLA cites data showing depression contributes nearly one million suicides a year worldwide.

The three-year study aims to gather data on basic health indicators such as sleep, physical activity, heart rate, and daily routines to reveal associations between these measures and depression and anxiety. Participants in the study will use or wear Apple technology to collect data on these indictors: iPhone, Apple Watch, and Beddit sleep monitor. The Beddit monitor is a thin, flexible sensor panel placed on the mattress, which sends data on sleep time, heart rate, breathing, snoring, and bedroom temperature and humidity to an accompanying iPhone app.

Participants in the study will receive an Apple Watch and Beddit Sleep Monitor, and download a special iPhone app that collects data for the study. Participants will also complete questionnaires and periodic clinical interviews. The university says individuals will share data from the devices under strict privacy and security conditions that removes identifying and contact information.

A UCLA team is led by neuroscientist, geneticist, and psychiatrist Nelson Freimer, also director of UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenges project. Depression Grand Challenges is a campus-wide initiative that brings together researchers across conventional disciplines to better understand the disease, including environmental and genetic factors, and reduce the stigma associated with depression. The collaboration with Apple is part of that initiative.

“This collaboration, which harnesses UCLA’s deep research expertise and Apple’s innovative technology,” says Freimer in a university statement, “has the potential to transform behavioral health research and clinical care. Current approaches to treating depression rely almost entirely on the subjective recollections of depression sufferers. This is an important step for obtaining objective and precise measurements that guide both diagnosis and treatment.”

The researchers will first conduct a pilot study with 150 participants, recruited from patients at UCLA Health, the university’s medical center and health system. The project then plans to expand to 3,000 participants from UCLA Health and student body.

Freimer notes that the Covid-19 pandemic increases the need for technologies that enable people to engage remotely in their health, including mental health. “The pandemic has heightened anxiety and depression globally, and has increased awareness of the importance of behavioral health to overall well-being,” says Freimer.

“At the same time,” he adds, “physical distancing requirements have limited in-person mental health assessment and treatment, leading to expanded use and acceptance of telehealth. These changes highlight the importance of incorporating technologies like those to be tested in this study into clinical research and eventually into practice.”

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