The mood forecasting technology could help end the bad mood even before it hits.

Receive the Mach newsletter.

By Jessica Wapner

Imagine an application or portable device that could say one day in advance that a person at risk would have suicidal thoughts – and alert the person and his or her trusted contacts. This could soon become a reality, thanks to the nascent field of mood forecasting.

We have become accustomed to fitness trackers and other electronic devices that monitor our physical activity, and scientists are now saying that similar technologies can be used to track our psychological health in ways never before possible.

By identifying the first signs of emotional distress, new applications and wearable devices may soon help preserve our mental well-being.

"We rely on patients to tell us how they feel, and we make our decisions count," said Ipset Vahia, a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. But as it is not subject to the vagaries of our mood and our ability to assess our psychological state, technology could provide physicians with more reliable information.

Exploit mind-body links

The mood forecast exploits the connection between the mind and the body. Research has shown that changes in our mental state, including bouts of sadness or anxiety, affect our body in a perceptible way.

Heart rate is the best known of these emotional biomarkers – our pulse tends to accelerate when we are stressed. But our body also responds to emotional distress in different ways. "We know that reduced movement and sleep are indicators of depression," says Vahia. Sweating increases with stress. And the temperature of the skin often increases with what Matthew Nock, psychologist at Harvard, calls "emotional arousal."

At least theoretically, any portable device with sensors for pulse, skin temperature and movement can help track our mood. But even something as simple as how we use our smartphones can reveal useful information about our mental state.

The pace at which we text, call, and post on social media are all markers of what experts call our "digital phenotype." And these markers change with our mood: publish more photos when we are happy, for example, or less we feel blue.

As Sharath Guntuku, a researcher at the Center for Digital Health at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, explains, "we can predict our mental state based on the use of technology."

Detect and interpret biomarkers

To harness all this valuable data, academic researchers and private companies are working to develop devices and programs that not only detect and interpret our biomarkers, but also provide useful advice.

For example, a mood forecasting device or app may urge a person to call a friend after exchanging text messages or walking around when the device has not recorded movement for several hours. Alternatively, changing biomarkers or numerical behavior could be communicated directly to the patient's physician, who could then intervene if necessary.

"By making these day-to-day micro-adjustments, you might not be able to slide into depression and bounce back," said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

What shows research

Early studies provide insights into the potential of mood prediction.

Last June, a team led by Picard had announced that an experimental wrist sensor could detect stress. The team followed 201 students for five semesters. Each carried an experimental sensor, developed by Picard, that monitored body temperature, phone activity and skin conductance (how far the skin was conducting electricity). The research, published last year in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, showed that the sensor was 80% accurate in determining when students felt stressed.

Source link