The promise of mobile and “wearable” technology to transform our physical and emotional health is touted constantly. On the subway in New York, ads hawk meditation apps that will unleash peak abilities. Parents will be familiar with mobile tools, games and content designed to help them and their children manage symptoms of ADHD, anxiety, depression and more.
“There are a gazillion smartphone applications — ostensibly useful for different health conditions — that haven’t been well vetted,” says Arno Klein, PhD, the director of the Child Mind Institute’s Innovative Technologies Lab, a part of the Center for the Developing Brain. “It’s a real zoo.”
Dr. Klein’s mission is to change that when it comes to child and adolescent mental health disorders. At the Child Mind Institute, he’s working on a database that evaluates the research support for apps and matches them to the behaviors and symptoms they can help. He’s developing wearable technology and mobile apps that help gather real-world data useful for scientists studying these disorders, and creating robust research protocols so our data are high quality and dependable.
Perhaps most exciting for parents, this information — biometrics, data on environmental stressors, movement and behavior tracking — can potentially be used to alert young people and families to the onset of symptomatic behaviors.
“Maybe it’s a light or a haptic buzz (like when a phone is on vibrate) that indicates to you that you’re approaching a state of distress,” Dr. Klein proposes. “Then you would be mindful of that state in a way you weren’t before,” and could use behavioral techniques learned in therapy to manage them. Dr. Klein wonders, “Could you not just track but also mitigate or curtail the behavior itself?”
Dr. Klein’s ideas for transformative mobile technology come from his time with Sage Bionetworks, where he worked with Apple and Parkinson’s experts to create a symptom tracking iPhone app called mPower. “We tried to create a new ecosystem of clinical research smartphone apps that would collect behavioral and physiological data from thousands of people,” Dr. Klein says. “Using pooled data, analyses could be conducted, and specific feedback for the user could come to the smartphone app.”
In addition to the potential for real-time symptom management for kids and families struggling with mental health disorders, the research and clinical benefits are huge. Dr. Klein is gathering speech samples from as many as 10,000 participants as part of the Child Mind Institute’s Healthy Brain Network community-based study.
The hope is that large-scale, standardized data-collection and analysis will lead to simple but powerful mobile tools for diagnosis and evaluation. Comparing a child’s “voiceprint” to a database of 10,000 already matched to diagnostic and behavioral information could revolutionize clinical evaluation, using objective biomarkers of mental health disorders to aid diagnosis and treatment.
If mobile tools for mental health care and evaluation are based on solid research and analysis like this, the landscape will no longer be a “zoo.” It will be a promising field that offers families, providers and researchers transformative new options for moving forward.