Ryan S. McGinnis
A movement sensor was able to identify children with internalizing disorders — including anxiety and depression — with 81% accuracy, according to research published in PLoS One.
“This is the first study [on wearable technologies] that targets internalizing disorders like anxiety and depression in young kids and also the first to use this type of approach for identifying individuals likely to have a diagnosis,” Ryan S. McGinnis, PhD, a biomedical engineer and assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Vermont, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “We are excited about this result because it points toward the future use of these technologies for screening children with otherwise hidden problems.”
In the study, 63 children aged 3 to 8 years were assessed for anxiety and depression during a 90-second task. The children were told scripted phrases that simulated a potential threat. For example, they were told, “Let’s be quiet so it doesn’t wake up” as they approached a covered terrarium. The children were then startled as the researcher quickly uncovered the terrarium to reveal a plastic snake at the child’s eye level several inches from their face. They were encouraged to touch the snake to ensure it was fake, and the researchers verbally reassured children as needed.
During this task, children wore a commercially available sensor on their waist that tracked their motion. A machine-learning algorithm was used to compare the movements of children with internalizing disorders with the movements of those without the disorders. Diagnoses were confirmed by a parental questionnaire and a diagnostic interview conducted by the researchers. The system was able to differentiate the children with 81% accuracy (67% sensitivity, 88% specificity).
A movement sensor attached to the waists of children with a belt may be able to identify children with internalizing disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Source: University of Vermont
Ellen McGinnis, PhD, a child psychiatry clinician at the University of Vermont, told Infectious Diseases in Children that when examining movement differences, children with internalizing disorders were more likely to turn further away from the blanket-covered terrarium compared with those without a disorder. She said this is not surprising because anxiety disorders are often about worries and fears of the unknown.
She also said that the research team has been considering which mood induction tasks would be appropriate to use in the pediatric setting to identify these internalizing conditions and that they “definitely have work to do before this is clinically used.”
“Our hope is that young children aged 3 to 7 years are no longer unintentionally overlooked because they may not be able to communicate their suffering and that they get referred to the services that they need,” Ellen McGinnis said. “Ultimately, it would be wonderful if all children aged 3 to 7 years were screened for depression and anxiety, like the way they are screened for physical health problems. We hope that in the future, we would be giving pediatricians a quick, easy, evidence-based tool to help them make a decision on referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for further diagnostic assessment.” – by Katherine Bortz
Disclosures: The authors report no relevant financial disclosures.