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Can our phone location data help manage depressive illness? The RADAR-CNS team believes so

The COVID-19 lockdown has increased awareness of mental health issues – particularly clinical depression. However, clinical intervention relies on the individual presenting to their doctor. Now, the IMI project RADAR-CNS has found that using phone location data may be able to help to predict a relapse in previous sufferers, helping encourage proactive intervention.

28 April 2022
Close up of the hands of a woman holding a smartphone. Image by Piyato via Shutterstock

Major depressive disorder (MDD) – perhaps better known as clinical depression – is a common and often debilitating condition. Sufferers can experience mood disturbance, feelings of low self-worth and can lose the capacity for enjoyment; these symptoms can often persist for prolonged periods.

While much MDD can be treated effectively with medication and other therapies, the symptoms can often return - 80% of those suffering a first major depressive episode will experience at least one more episode of depression during their life. Rapid intervention can help prevent symptoms from becoming severe – but this depends on the sufferer presenting to a medical professional for a diagnosis. However, the nature of MDD is such that sufferers may not have insight into the return of their condition or lack the motivation to visit their doctor.

To help meet this challenge, the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) project RADAR-CNS may have identified a method of detecting patterns that can signal the worsening of symptoms in people with MDD. The team running the RADAR-CNS project are using information from smartphones – particularly the geolocation data – to act as a predictor of mood changes.

Researchers designed a clinical study that tracked the movements of almost 300 patients in three countries (the UK, the Netherlands and Spain) over 27 months. All of the participants had already had a diagnosis of depression within the previous two years. The study captured their location from their phone every 10 minutes, and matched this with self-reported information on symptom severity provided by the participant. The results revealed that those who experienced a worsening of their symptoms tended to spend more time at home than in the previous two weeks; in other words, changes in people’s mobility precede changes in their depressive symptom severity. The findings have been published in the journal JMIR Mental Health.

Why is this important? People with MDD may experience serious long-term consequences of their condition. On average, they have a shorter life expectancy than non-sufferers. They face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and people with major depression are less likely to follow medical recommendations for treating and preventing cardiovascular disorders, further increasing their risk of medical complications. Therefore any method that detects the deepening of symptoms could allow treatment to begin before a patient's health deteriorates further.

While the study has clearly demonstrated a link between reduced mobility and severity of symptoms, there is more work to be done before this can become a reliable tool. Importantly, it has also highlighted the potential of data from personal electronic wearable devices and smartphone technologies. It also provides encouragement for the RADAR-CNS team in the other areas they are examining, namely predicting the early onset of seizures in epilepsy and the exacerbation of multiple sclerosis symptoms - both of which can also benefit from early intervention.

RADAR-CNS is supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.