July 14, 2014

New smartphone-based system has the potential to improve the response time of clinical psychiatrists. (Shutterstock)
New smartphone-based system has the potential to improve the response time of clinical psychiatrists. (Shutterstock)
New technology developed by researchers at Tel Aviv University is being hyped to transform the way in which patients with mental illnesses are monitored and treated by clinicians. The Israeli researchers have developed a new smartphone-based system that detects changes in patients’ behavioral patterns, and then transmits them to professionals in real time.

Mental illness accounts for 90 percent of all reported suicides and places the largest burden of any disease on social and economic infrastructures worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. There is a great need for support services to assist clinicians in the evaluation and treatment of those suffering from mental illness.

Dr. Uri Nevo, research team engineer Keren Sela, and scientists from TAU’s Faculty of Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience are behind the new smartphone-based system that has the potential to greatly improve the response time and efficacy of clinical psychiatrists.

“The diagnosis of mental health disease is based only on behavioral patterns,” said Nevo. “In some cases, a patient is discharged from the hospital into a vacuum, with no idea how to monitor his or her new state of mind. Because most people own smartphones today, we thought, ‘Why not harness the smartphone, a reservoir of daily activities, to monitor behavioral patterns?’

The technology also affords patients much-needed independence from hospitals, clinicians — and even family members.

According to Nevo, a patient using the app has full control over who has access to the behavioral patterns recorded and analyzed by it. “We take great care to protect the patient’s privacy,” said Nevo. “The content of calls and texts is completely ignored and never acquired or recorded, and any identifying parameters of the patient or of his contacts, are irreversibly masked and are obviously not used.”

Research on the application was presented in March at the Israel Society for Biological Psychiatry’s annual conference. The project won funding from the Israeli Ministry of Economy and was recently chosen as one of four finalist start-up initiatives featured at Israel’s leading Entrepreneurship and Innovation 8200 Accelerator Program.

The Tel Aviv team is currently in talks with other medical centers in Israel and overseas to expand clinical trials.

“We have a way to go until such a system will be proven effective and adopted by the psychiatric community,” said Nevo. “However, psychiatrists, as well as US federal policymakers in the field, agree that such tools are necessary to improve psychiatric practice.”

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Jason Harris

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