Mobile apps and wearable technology can help in monitoring sleep of people who suffer from mental health disorders. Researchers make this conclusion in a recent review article that will be published in July in the scientific journal Current Psychiatry Reports. These conclusions are being used in a major research collaboration between the Aalto University Department of Computer Science and University of Helsinki Department of Psychiatry.
Sleep problems relate to many mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. They can be a symptom of these disorders, but also a cause of them. For example, insomnia can worsen depression, make it last longer, and influence its relapse rate.
Most studies that were included in the review indicate that smart phones are suitable for monitoring behaviour of people with mental health disorders. Some studies showed that wearables can be used for this purpose as well.
The research findings indicate that apps and devices could even help to detect disorder-related factors. According to Talayeh Aledavood, the main author of the review, one such factor could be, for instance, how the person moves. This type of technology can easily monitor movement.
Aledavood is a visiting researcher at Aalto University Department of Computer Science and a postdoctoral researcher at University of Helsinki Department of Psychiatry. For the review, she and Aalto University doctoral candidate Ana Triana Hoyos collaborated with researchers from Harvard University, including John Torous, MD, and Jukka-Pekka Onnela, associate professor of biostatistics.
An app or a device can gather information in many ways, and that is why they have so much potential. By using a mobile device app, the user can report about factors related to their sleep. In addition, the app or device can collect so-called passive data, meaning that new data is collected without the user’s attention. The app or device stays active in the background, following what the user does.
Selecting a reliable app is still difficult
Despite the potential of smart devices, in order to use them in clinical settings, researchers need to be sure about their validity. They need to know what exactly the devices measure and how, and that they do it in a trustworthy manner.
This is still a challenge to both consumers and experts. Aledavood is worried about the fact that there are many apps and wearables for consumers, but it is difficult for the consumers to evaluate which ones can be trusted and which ones not. Research findings have shown that some products produce useless data, whereas others provide the user with incorrect information or advice.
John Torous, a co-author of the review, has studied which criteria should be used in the selection of a health app. He led a work group on the evaluation of smartphone apps for the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which resulted in the development of an improved health app evaluation tool that APA now plans to launch. In June, Torous and his colleagues wrote about the topic in the Lancet, an important medical journal. Researchers focused on how one can make an informed decision based on clinically relevant criteria, when selecting an app for the treatment of mental health disorders. While no single therapy or medical treatment is effective in treatment of all disorders, no single app or device can be used to treat all disorders.