UCLA Teams up with Apple for Depression Study

image credit: Harvard Health Publishing

By Chand Bellur

August 9, 2020 at 1:27 p.m. PT

  • Sleep patterns and other behaviors may influence depression.
  • The Apple Watch, iPhone, and Beddit sleep monitor (owned by Apple) can easily track sleep behavior.
  • UCLA and Apple are currently working together on a small study to examine how sleep and activity influence depression and anxiety.

UCLA to Study Sleep, Activity, Depression and Anxiety with Apple Technology

When the Apple Watch debuted, there were high hopes for using the device as a healthcare diagnostic tool. Although the sensors and design of the first Apple Watch left much room for improvement, it was a step in the right direction.

Initial versions of the Apple Watch featured inaccurate heart rate monitoring. Someone in my own family actually had a false reading that caused his Apple watch to make an emergency call. He had to pull off the freeway to cancel the ambulance dispatch. The device was actually capable of doing more harm than good.

Over time, the Apple Watch has improved. By the time the fourth generation model launched, Apple refined both software and hardware. The Apple watch’s ECG capabilities improved to the extent that the FDA approved the device. Even the American Heart Association contends that the Apple Watch provides useful diagnostic data.

Other products have embraced the Apple healthcare ecosystem. Beddit, now owned by Apple, provides an easy-to-use sleep monitoring strip. The small, compact diagnostic strip is fastened to the patient’s bed, allowing it to detect heart rate, breathing, and other vital statistics.

An accompanying iOS app uses the iPhone’s microphone to detect snoring. One could say this is a bit of a Rube Goldberg machine, with three devices involved in diagnostics. Those with more positive views of technology could call it the “Internet of Things”.

Despite the multi-device complexity, UCLA is designing a study with Apple’s help. Using the Apple Watch, iPhone, and Beddit sleep monitor, UCLA researchers are trying to discover links between sleep patterns, depression, and anxiety.

Multiple Phases of Depression Study

The UCLA study will begin with a small group of 150 participants. Recruited subjects must have an iPhone; however, they will receive an Apple Watch and Beddit sleep monitor for the study duration. After the initial pilot, the study will expand to 3,000 participants — mostly students and hospital employees.

In addition to sleep, the study also tracks activity and other behaviors. People notoriously over or underestimate how active they are. For the most part, they’re not lying. They’re just not tracking these statistics accurately. The Apple Watch, iPhone, and Beddit, working in concert, will finally shed light on how sleep, activity, and other lifestyle factors influence depression. Hopefully, insights can develop better therapies for treating some forms of mental illness.

Apple Expands Healthcare Initiative

If you build it, they will come. This is usually not true of tech products. Without marketing, no one knows about the product in the first place, let alone why they should purchase it.

Apple’s healthcare strategy has grown and succeeded, while other major players have backed down after failed initiatives. The fact that the Apple Watch is the number one smartwatch benefits their healthcare initiative immensely. The ubiquitous device, owned by over 55 million, provides accurate diagnostic data and activity information. It’s a dream come true for many researchers.

The availability of inexpensive diagnostic monitoring and Apple’s willingness to work with researchers provide many new opportunities for studies. Universities, pharmaceutical companies, and major health care providers have all joined in the effort. Whether you love or hate Apple, their products may save your life someday.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.