New programme can detect those at higher risk of depression

Scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) have developed a computer programme that can detect individuals who are at a higher risk of developing depression.

The predictive programme analyses a person’s physical activity, sleep patterns and circadian rhythms through data from wearable devices such as Fitbit watches.

A trial of 290 adults carried out in 2019 over three months showed that the programme had an accuracy of 80% in detecting those with depression (or at a high risk of developing depressive symptoms/depression) compared to healthy individuals.

Trial participants were adults aged between 21 and 69, and wore a tracking device for two weeks. The average age was 33.

Professor Josip Car, the director of the Centre for Population Health Sciences at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, who led the study, said yesterday that to fine-tune and improve the machine learning algorithm, the team was planning larger studies of more than 1,000 participants monitored over a course of two years.

Anyone could join the study and there were no selection criteria, Prof Car added.

Depression affects 264 million people globally, and is undiagnosed and untreated in half of all cases, according to the World Health Organisation’s website.

The Institute of Mental Health said in August last year that a study of more than 1,000 participants found that 13% reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of NTU’s study, Prof Car said: “Our study successfully showed that we could harness data from wearables, and given the increasing popularity of such wearable devices, it could be used for timely and unobtrusive depression screening.”

The researchers cautioned that their programme was not intended to predict the possibility of an individual getting depression, but rather to detect if a person was at high risk of suffering from depression at present.

The team also found that certain patterns in a person’s behaviour could be associated with depressive symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, loss of interest in daily activities and changes in appetite.

Those who had more varied heart rates between 2am and 4am, and between 4am and 6am were prone to more severe depressive symptoms. — The Straits Times/ANN

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