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UIC doctor develops app to detect mental illness just by using a smartphone

UIC doctor develops app to detect mental illness just by using a smartphone
UIC doctor develops app to detect mental illness just by using a smartphone 03:23

A brain expert and professor at the University of Illinois Chicago has created a smartphone app to detect mental illness in real time.

Dr. Alex Leow, a professor in psychiatry and bio-engineering at UIC, had different career aspirations while growing up.  

"I wanted to be a concert pianist or a pure mathematician," she said

Leow is exceptional at the piano and still plays almost daily. Originally from Taiwan, she put that career path aside and traveled to the United States to study.

"I really wanted to do research that would combine my passion for mathematics and the practice of medicine," she said. "And this, of course, was before the time of artificial intelligence or AI, but I thought, well, there is a system in the entire body that would be most suitable for mathematical modeling, and that is probably going to be the human brain. 

"The human brain is like a biological computer. That's why I decided to become a psychiatrist."

Leow was ahead of her time researching artificial intelligence applications in mental health long before AI became mainstream. Her research specialty is bipolar disorder.  

"When I was growing up in Taiwan, people didn't talk about mental health issues; there was shame or guilt," she adds.

In 2015, when smartwatches and wearable technology came on the scene, she had an "ah-ha" moment. It came to her when looking at her hands on the piano keyboard.

"I asked myself if we can have a fitness tracker for the human body, why can't we have one for the human brain," she said.

That's when the app BiAffect was born. The app has users replace their smartphone keyboard with the app's keyboard.

"Then every time you are writing an email, posting on social media, or texting a friend, the timing of each keypress will be saved so we can understand how fast or slow you are typing," she said.

It can also tell if the person is upright or lying down when using the keyboard, an essential tool for people who suffer from depression.

"They can use this objective real-time information to take better control, better ownership of their mental health and act on this information before the symptoms reach a point of no return," she said. 

More than 2,000 users—Leow calls them citizen scientists—are currently participating in crowdsourcing information.

The app is still evolving, and Leow hopes soon, it will become an early alarm system, where information can become a tool for healthcare providers and lead to new treatments, including acting on patterns seen by those who may become suicidal.

"Every day when I wake up, I think of the possibility of what something like this can bring to our patients," she said.

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