Apple looks to digital biomarkers for features detecting depression, cognitive decline


Apple is looking to use digital biomarkers to help detect depression and early-stage cognitive decline, according to a new report out of The Wall Street Journal

The end goal, according to the Journal, is to create a new Apple feature that would tell users if there was a potential mental illness. Data collected regarding a users’ mobility, physical activity, sleep pattern could be included in the algorithm.

The report notes that the new effort could be tied to collaborations that the Silicon Valley titan already has established with UCLA researchers and pharma company Biogen. 

At the beginning of August UCLA announced a three-year study collaboration with Apple centered on finding the connection between depression and biomarkers collected by digital tools. In the study, researchers will look at data from the iPhone, Apple Watch and the Beddit sleep monitoring device. 

“This collaboration, which harnesses UCLA’s deep research expertise and Apple’s innovative technology, has the potential to transform behavioral health research and clinical care,” Dr. Nelson Freimer, a professor of psychiatry and principal investigator of the study, said during an August announcement.

“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.”

In January, Biogen announced a collaboration with Apple focused on looking at the role of Apple Watch and iPhone in monitoring cognitive performance and screening for mild cognitive impairments. It’s no secret that Biogen is interested in cognitive decline. In June the company landed an FDA clearance for its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

Depression is a common condition in the U.S. According to the CDC, 4.7% of adults over the age of 18 living in the US have regular feelings of depression.

In recent years, doctors and technologists have been exploring how digital biomarkers could help monitor patients with mental health conditions. For example, Beth Israel’s Division of Digital Psychiatry created a tool that collects both active data, like surveys and cognitive tests, and passive data, including GPS accelerometer logs and call logs from a patient’s smartphone. Patients typically go over the data at a doctor’s appointment or research visit. 

On the startup side, Mindstong developed tools to measure wellness through smartphone behaviors, such as how a patient taps, scrolls and types. The tool also enables video messaging and video calls with a provider. 

THE LARGER TREND 

Apple has been involved in the health sector for some time. The Apple Watch has moved beyond step counting and heart rate. In 2018 the company made headlines when it landed a de novo clearance for an ECG feature on its Apple Watch. Since then the company added a VO2 Max measurement to its watches and other health features. 

The company has also been incorporating more health features into its iPhones. In June it announced a new health sharing feature, giving patients the ability to share their data with doctors and family, as well as a walking stability feature. 

The company is currently working with a number of organizations on research projects. For example, in March the company announced a collaboration with Harvard’s T.H Chan School of Public Health to gain insights into women’s health across demographics and lifestyles. 

It has also been working with the University of Michigan and the World Health Organization on a study about hearing health. 

Famously it has collaborated with Stanford on the Apple Heart study to monitor patients’ cardiovascular health. 



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