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Smartphones and depression
Illustration Callum Abbott

Will your iPhone soon be able to detect depression?

Apple is reportedly working on new in-phone technology that could help diagnose mental health issues and cognitive decline

Smartphones can do pretty much everything: act as contraception, become therapists, and even remotely switch on your buttplug. Now, thanks to Apple, they might soon be able to diagnose you with depression.

As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the tech giant is working on a new iPhone feature that can help detect if a user is depressed or suffering from cognitive decline. The technology would use sensory data – including mobility, physical activity, sleep patterns, typing behaviour, and more – to spot digital signals associated with various mental health or neurological issues.

Apple is working with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and pharmaceutical company Biogen on the technology. UCLA is currently studying stress, anxiety, and depression, while Biogen is researching mild cognitive impairment.

In its study, which started last year, UCLA tracks Apple Watch and iPhone data from a sample of roughly 3,000 people. Researchers monitor data from the phone’s camera, keyboard and audio sensors, as well in relation to movement and sleep. The data could allude to a person’s mental state via information like facial expressions, how they speak, the frequency of their walks, sleep patterns, heart and respiration rates, and the speed and content of their typing.

In January, Biogen announced its own study into developing “digital biomarkers to help monitor cognitive performance”. Starting on Monday (September 20), the study has launched in collaboration with Apple, and will “investigate the role Apple Watch and iPhone could play in screening for decline in cognitive health, including mild cognitive impairment”.

“The successful development of digital biomarkers in brain health would help address the significant need to accelerate patient diagnoses and empower physicians and individuals to take timely action,” Michel Vounatsos, the CEO of Biogen, said in a statement. “For healthcare systems, such advancements in cognitive biomarkers from large-scale studies could contribute significantly to prevention and better population-based health outcomes, and lower costs to health systems.”

Discussing its collaboration with Apple, Vounatsos added: “Bringing together the best of neuroscience with the best of technology creates a wonderful prospect for patients and public health.”

Of course, there’s irony in this creation, given the role of technology itself in the demise of our collective mental healths, but Apple probably doesn’t care about that. More tech = more depression = more tech = more money.

Anyway, there’s no further news as of yet, but if the study and technology development go well, your phone could soon be your own little pocket doctor. TBC what danger this all-knowing technology will pose – one step closer to Facebook’s mind-reading device, I guess.