January 15, 2019
3 min read

Q&A: Smartphone app may help people with mood disorders

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Image of Olusola Ajilore
Olusola Ajilore

It may be possible to track a person’s mood using a smartphone app, then use the data to help those with depression and other mood disorders, according to researchers at the University of Illinois.

Results from a meta-analysis published in World Psychiatry in 2017 showed interventions delivered via smartphone apps effectively reduced depressive symptoms. In the study, which looked at evidence from 18 randomized controlled trials of 22 smartphone apps, researchers found that those who received smartphone app interventions had significantly lower depressive symptoms than control conditions.

In addition, according to findings presented at the 2016 Anxiety and Depression Association of America Conference, three smartphone apps (Crowd++, EmotionSenset and REACT) that measured conversation participation, physical and social activity and served as an online diary were well-received by adolescents with anxiety and depression and their parents.

These findings, as well as those from other studies, indicate that using smartphone technology may have the potential to provide global, cost-effective and evidence-based mental health services quickly and easily.

woman on smartphone   
Source: Adobe Stock

At the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers studying depression and mania in bipolar disorder are using crowdsourcing to test their experimental phone app, BiAffect, which monitors changes in phone use that may signal the onset of mood problems, Alex Leow MD, PhD, app developer and associate professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at University of Illinois College of Medicine, explained in an article published in The New York Times.

Olusola Ajilore, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, who helped develop the BiAffect app with Leow, spoke with Healio Psychiatry about the app and its potential to help patients. – by Savannah Demko

Could you talk a little about how your app, BiAffect, monitors mood and cognition ?

The core technology of BiAffect is a custom keyboard that replaces the default keyboard of your smartphone. The keyboard captures how you type, but importantly not what you type, acquiring metadata about typing dynamics. We then build mathematical models that leverage these metadata (eg, the amount of texting and its distribution over the time of the day, typing speed, accuracy, variability, typos, backspace usage, etc.) to track mood and cognitive functioning.

How can a clinician use this app to help patients with mood disorders?

At the present time, the app is not available for clinical use. However, we are currently running a BiAffect study using a novel crowdsourcing model via an iPhone app that is available to anyone in the U.S. who is interested in becoming a citizen scientist (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/biaffect/id1355144276), with the hope that we could one day unobtrusively measure mood and cognition "in the wild" and in real-time.


Are there any ethical concerns regarding privacy and permission?

Use of the app for research purposes is approved by UIC's Institutional Review Board, which oversees the ethical conduct of human subjects’ research. BiAffect protects the user's privacy by not tracking what a user types. We do not collect any data without the user's express consent and permission.

Are there any other mental health apps that are out now or coming soon that you’re excited about?

I'm excited to see what happens with Pear Therapeutics' reSET app for substance-use disorders. This is one of the first FDA-approved apps for a mental health indication. It will be interesting to see if it will be widely adopted by clinicians and patients.

Man on smartphone   
Source: Adobe Stock

What would using these technological methods to gather and track data mean for the future of psychiatry?

It is our hope that these technological innovations will yield better outcomes for patients. As clinicians, we will be better informed with passive, objective measures of how our patients are responding to treatment. Eventually, it is our hope that we will be able to use this technology as an early warning system to prevent mood episodes from occurring in the first place, by intervening before a crisis.


Firth J, et al. World Psychiatry. 2017;doi:10.1002/wps.20472.

The New York Times. Detecting Depression: Phone Apps Could Monitor Teen Angst. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2019/01/03/health/ap-us-med-growing-up-digital-smartphone-psychiatry.html. Accessed on Jan. 14, 2019.

Temkin A, et al. Usability and consumer appeal of a smartphone behavioral assessment suite: A tool to predict moods from behavioral phenotypes. Presented at: Anxiety and Depression Association of America Conference; March 31-April 3, 2016; Philadelphia.

Disclosure: Ajilore reports no relevant financial disclosures. Credit for Ajilore’s photo: Vibhu Sreevatsa Rangavasan.