Apple developing software to screen for depression, cognitive decline

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The Breathe app on Apple Watch promotes health and well-being.
The Breathe app on Apple Watch promotes health and well-being.
Photo: Apple

Apple is developing new iPhone and Apple Watch software tracking user health data to try to detect signs of depression and cognitive decline in users. The work is a joint effort with partners, The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets reported Tuesday.

With the software, diagnoses resulting from screening would rely on an array of user data. The information could include physical activity levels, mobility, sleep patterns, typing behavior and other health information.

Apple developers hope the data will help them refine algorithms that can detect signs of depression and other mental health conditions, the Journal reported.

iPhone screening for health: joint efforts

The software in development stems from a partnership between Apple and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Related work will unfold between Apple and researchers from biotech company Biogen, which focuses on neurological diseases.

Together, they’re studying anxiety, depression, stress and their relationship with mild cognitive impairment.

The Journal said a project with UCLA goes by codename “Seabreeze.” The parallel research is called “Pi.”

UCLA study and Biogen app collaboration

Apple co-designed UCLA’s three-year study. In it, researchers will track data from an iPhone’s video camera, keyboard and audio inputs. Data will also come from Apple Watch and the Beddit sleep-tracker, which Apple acquired in 2017, CNBC reported.

Researchers plan to cross reference the data with health patterns to look for depression or anxiety.

The more data tracked and used to detect mental health patterns, the more accurate algorithms should become at detecting mental illnesses.

Meanwhile, Apple and Biogen plan to collaborate on a new app using the improved algorithmic data for early detection of mild cognitive impairments.

Apple’s ongoing health care efforts

Apple’s work on health care software has increased over time. Its Apple Watch, soon to be released in version 7, sports several health features. The device can monitor, collect and analyze user health data such as heart rate, respiratory activity, sleep data and physical activity.

And Apple Watch now includes a new Mindfulness app. It helps promote mental health and encourage users’ positive thought patterns. The company’s Breathe app takes users through guided meditations based on rhythmic breathing. They have been shown to have positive health effects.

The company also updates its iOS Health app regularly with improved analytics.

New health OS updates

iPhone users will have access to new health features in iOS 15 released Monday. A new sharing feature in the Health app allows users to share data with loved ones as well as their physician. A walking-steadiness biomarker  provides insights into fall risk. A trends feature can highlight any changes in their collected health data.

Last week, Apple said it will add cycling features to its WatchOS 8 and expand its Fitness+ program, which features by-subscription workout videos to be used with Apple Watch.

“This past year has emphasized the importance of health, and we’re enabling our users to take a more active role in their well-being. We’ve added powerful features that give users the most comprehensive set of insights to better understand their health trends over time,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, in a press release.

Apple has said users have control over health data and who can access it.