Making more informed decisions on treatments for patients is essential, and could lead to new ways of predicting depression onset. Thanks to PERSONA technology, doctors can now assess depression levels by equipping their patients with various sensors and asking them to complete regular surveys on their mobile phones. The system allows scientists to monitor patients as they go about their daily lives. By measuring variables like sleep patterns, activity levels, heart rate, skin temperature and even changes in a person’s tone of voice, the researchers can assess the extent to which a person suffers from depression. ‘Personalised medicine has tremendous potential for mental health,’ explains the project coordinator, Dr Szymon Fedor of the University of Cambridge. ‘Currently we are lacking methods for prescribing accurate treatment for depression. Mobile phones and wearable sensors enable objective monitoring of parameters related to depression like mood, behaviours or sleep.’ The activity and physiological sensors used in the project were small and inconspicuous, and worn on the wrist like fitness trackers. A sleep monitor that measures the electrical activity of the brain was placed on patients’ heads at night, and they were asked to speak into their phones weekly to gather information on vocal characteristics. The data collected by the project allows doctors to make more informed decisions when prescribing treatments. As there is a wide range of therapeutical options available, it can be a challenge to find the right one for each particular person. Most people have to endure a ‘trial-and error’ period until a suitable remedy is found. By identifying patterns in the individualised data collected by the PERSONA project, the correct treatment can be selected faster, so that patients don’t have to undergo a series of ineffective therapies. This is a big step forward on patient well-being, as current medication for depression is known to be very severe, with strong and long-lasting side-effects. If the illness is discovered early thank to the PERSONA tool, there is a greater chance of beating it, and patients might not need to take the most extreme forms of treatments. ‘The sooner we detect depression, the earlier we can intervene and it is harder to cure prolonged depression,’ Dr Fedor explains. A biomarker for depression? There are no known biomarkers for depression, but the PERSONA project research might lead to future discoveries, the scientists say. ‘We often use risk biomarkers in physical health to anticipate development of a disease. For example, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are the risk biomarkers for coronary heart disease. I believe in the future we will also have measures to anticipate onset of depression and other mental diseases,’ says Dr Fedor. If such a marker was found, this would allow treatments to be administered at an early stage, increasing the chances of full recovery. Looking forwards, the researchers hope that diagnostic and assessment methods based on a daily monitoring of depressed people using wearable smart-technology devices will be commonplace, to provide doctors with more accurate and objective insights as they prescribe effective treatments for this disease.
PERSONA, depression, mental illness, smart-tech, wearable devices, personalised medicine