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Smartphone App Could Diagnose And Treat Mental Health Symptoms

BOSTON (CBS) - Whether someone is suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or substance abuse, doctors have to rely on a patient's memory to make a diagnosis and gauge whether therapy is working, but experts say it's hard for people to remember how they were eating or sleeping or feeling two weeks ago.

That's where Beiwe comes in, a new smartphone app, developed by JP Onnela, PhD at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Beiwe collects millions of data points about a patient's behavior, tracking their movements, phone calls, texts, and mood.

"Let's imagine a patient is bipolar," says Onnela, "If depressed, she'll stay in her home and if the phone rings, she won't pick up her phone. Now imagine the same person, if manic, may leave the house, she might pick up the phone and text all her friends," explain Onnela. Beiwe can keep monitor all of these behaviors.

The app also allows you to store voice recordings, like a daily journal entry, and if you're feeling sad or desperate and need to talk to someone, you can push an emergency button that says "call for assistance".

Dr. John Torous, a Harvard Psychiatry Senior Resident who is collaborating on the project, says there are plenty of mental health apps on the market but he says they're not being vetted like Beiwe. "You can find thousands of them, but they aren't very carefully studied. Just like when a medication is being developed, you want to look at it carefully," says Dr. Torous.

That is exactly what Onnela is doing. He is about to launch clinical trials to test the app and while it is still just a scientific tool, he is hoping it will one day became widely available to patients and their doctors.

"I think this could really change the way we approach some of these disorders," says Onnela. "One of the biggest pieces is that we bring the measurement to the patient and not the patient to the measurements."

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