Smartphone App Could Flag Mood Swings in People With Bipolar Disorder

Speech patterns can reveal onset of manic and depressive episodes

2 min read
Smartphone App Could Flag Mood Swings in People With Bipolar Disorder
Illustration: iStockphoto

Psychiatrists know that they shouldn't just listen to what their patients say, but also how they say it. And now researchers at the University of Michigan have created a smartphone app that mimics that listening behavior. By analyzing the phone conversations of people with bipolar disorder, researchers say they've detected the speech patterns associated with manic and depressive episodes.

The small study included only six patients, and was intended as a proof of concept. Next the researchers want to develop an app that detects early signals of mood swings in people with bipolar disorder, allowing for prompt medical intervention. The researchers presented their paper this week at the IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing.

There's growing interest in using smartphone apps in psychiatry, both to help people manage their own illnesses and to let clinicians keep a closer eye on patients with ailments like depression, schizophrenia, and PTSD. In one experiment that's rather similar to this bipolar study, researchers with the Boston company Cogito tested an app that analyzed vocal and social activity to look for symptoms of PTSD.

The University of Michigan researchers designed their tool, called Priori, as a smartphone app that unobtrusively records and analyzes the user's outgoing speech during phone calls (incoming speech is not recorded or analyzed). Because the app is recording the user's personal conversations, patient privacy is a key issue. The recordings are therefore encrypted and off-limits to the researchers, who only have access to the results of the computer analyses.

The Priori system tracked the user's patterns of speech and silence, the pitch of the user's voice, and other acoustic features. To teach the system which features were associated with mania, depression, or the calm of a normal mood, the researchers made a weekly phone call to each user, in which they assessed the user's mood and labeled it. Then the researchers tested their model by having the Priori system analyze the user's other conversations on the day of the assessment and the days immediately before and after, when the user's mood was assumed to be about the same. While the signals of mania or depression were more subtle in those "unstructured" conversations, they were detectable.

This project will run for a few more years, and researchers are seeking volunteers

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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