News / Health

Smartphone App Created for People with Bipolar Disorder

Jessica Berman
A new smartphone application can monitor the subtle changes in the voices of individuals with bipolar disorder, a serious mental illness marked by extreme highs and lows in mood.  Scientists hope the app will help doctors detect early signs of mood alterations requiring immediate medical attention.  

Bipolar disorder affects tens of millions of people around the world.  Experts say 10 to 20 percent of them end up committing suicide.

Bipolar individuals struggle with flights of mania, during which they behave impulsively, feel invincible and often engage in high-risk activities. At the other emotional extreme, people with the mental condition battle severe depression.  The disorder can ruin relationships and families.  

Researchers at the University of Michigan have developed a smartphone app designed to identify the first signs that a bipolar patient is becoming unstable.  

The project, dubbed PRIORI, is aimed at picking up subtle changes in the person’s voice suggestive of mood instability, so patients can be treated promptly before they spiral out of control.

The app, which runs silently in the background as people talk on their cell phones, sends encrypted speech pattern data to a central computer that analyzes voice inflections and pacing.

Psychiatrist Melvin McInnis, part of a team at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that is testing the experimental app, says it’s best to pick up early signs of mania since patients who advance to a full blown manic episode often refuse treatment.  

"So, they are [thinking] that, 'Hey, I am feeling great.  And there’s nothing wrong with me.  And don’t bother increasing my medication because I am fine,'" he said.

But they're not fine.

Patients who are becoming manic may speak more quickly or louder than usual. McInnis says detecting early signs of a depressive episode is more difficult as individuals may try to conceal their growing sense of hopelessness.  

In the yearlong study, a small group of patients also checked in weekly with a health care provider for a clinical assessment.

According to the World Health Organization, bipolar disorder is the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide.  But experts say there’s a shortage of psychiatrists and mental health workers.

With billions of people now using mobile phones, McInnis believes the PRIORI app could make it easier for people in developing countries to get treatment quickly.

“When an individual has a change.. the health system can be alerted and said [told] you know, 'Mr. Jones or Mrs. Jones is in need of an intervention and should be called to the medical center to be evaluated further for change in the need for interventions in their health,'" he said.

Researchers unveiled the smartphone application at the International Conference on Acoustics, Speech and Signal Processing meeting in Italy.

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