By Marvin Ross
Can your smartphone usage predict your mental health? Silicon Valley seems to think so and millions are pouring into a start up called Mindstrong. The concept is that its “app, based on cognitive functioning research, can help detect troubling mental health patterns by collecting data on a person’s smartphone usage — how quickly they type or scroll, for instance.”
The app has generated tens of millions of dollars in investments from people like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and one of the company’s executives in Dr Tom Insell the former head of the National Institute on Mental Health. He acknowledged that the app isn’t perfect but the CEO told STAT that it “could provide unprecedented insight into conditions like depression”. They also told STAT that it “can even predict how a person will feel next week, or at least how a person will perform on the Hamilton Rating Scale for depression — kind of like a weather app for your mood.”
There is one little problem with the hype for this company. The program has never been validated by independent scientists and none of the results from 5 clinical trials have been released. They did publish a pilot study of 27 subjects and presented a poster of that which states that this is feasible.
This project came to my attention while I was reading Bad Blood Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal. The book deals with a long standing health startup begun by a 19 year old Stanford dropout. Elizabeth Holmes was afraid of needles and decided that it would be possible to perform all blood testing with just a small finger stick as is done with blood sugar levels. Her idea was that the testing could be done instantaneously and people could even have these units in their homes.
She patented the idea, set up a company and managed to raise sufficient funds to value her company at $9 billion. Members of her board included former US Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger as well as General Mad Dog Mattis who went on to become Secretary of Defence under the Trumpster and Rupert Murdoch. Along the way, she managed to get testing done with the US Military and two pharmaceutical companies but those efforts failed. She also had arrangements with Safeway and Walgreens Pharmacy chain.
Investors have lost over $600 million in the venture including over $100 million by US Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos, and the heirs to the Walmart fortune. The founder was recently charged with criminal fraud.
So, if I’m a tad skeptical about using smartphones to measure mental illness, there is a reason. First, let’s have the data subjected to peer review in reputable journals.