Even before the pandemic created a need for more telehealth options, depression was a hot area of research for app developers. Given the high prevalence of depression and its connection to suicidality — especially among today’s teenagers and young adults who grew up with mobile devices, use them often, and experience these conditions with alarming frequency — apps for depression could be not only useful but lifesaving.
“For people who are not depressed, but have been depressed in the past, the apps can be helpful for maintaining positive thinking and behaviors,” said Andrea K. Wittenborn, PhD, director of the Couple and Family Therapy Doctoral Program and a professor in human development and family studies at Michigan State University. “For people who are mildly to severely depressed, apps can be a useful complement to working with a mental health professional.”
Health and fitness apps, in general, number in the hundreds of thousands. These are driving a market expected to reach $102.45 billion by next year. The mobile mental health app market is a small part of this but still sizable at $500 million, with revenues generated through user health insurance, employers, and direct payments from individuals.
Apps can provide data that health professionals cannot gather on their own. People’s constant interaction with smartphones and wearable devices yields data on many health conditions for millions of patients in their natural environments and while they go about their usual activities. Compared with the in-office measurements of weight and blood pressure and the brevity of doctor-patient interactions, the thousands of data points gathered unobtrusively over an extended time period provide a far better and more detailed picture of the person and their health.
At their most advanced level, apps for mental health, including depression, passively gather data on how the user touches and interacts with the mobile device through changes in digital biomarkers that relate to depressive symptoms and other conditions.
Building on three decades of research since early “apps” were used for delivering treatment manuals to health professionals, today’s more than 20,000 mental health apps have a wide range of functionalities and business models. Many of these apps can be useful for depression.
Some apps primarily provide a virtual connection to a group of mental health professionals employed or contracted by the app. Others have options for meditation, sleeping or, in the case of industry leaders Calm and Headspace, overall well-being. On the cutting edge are apps that detect changes in a person’s use of mobile devices and their interactions with them.
Apps such as AbleTo, Happify Health, and Woebot Health focus on cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of counseling with proven potential to change a person’s behaviors and feelings. “CBT has been demonstrated in innumerable studies over the last several decades to be effective in the treatment of behavioral health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders,” said Dr. Reena Pande, chief medical officer at AbleTo. “CBT is intended to be delivered as a structured intervention incorporating key elements, including behavioral activation and adaptive thinking strategies.”
These CBT skills help break the negative self-talk (rumination) common in patients with depression. They are taught and reinforced by some self-guided apps, using either artificial intelligence or programmed interactions with users. Apps can address loneliness and isolation through connections with others, even when a symptomatic person doesn’t feel like leaving the house.
At their most advanced level, apps for mental health, including depression, passively gather data on how the user touches and interacts with the mobile device through changes in “digital biomarkers” that can be associated with onset or worsening of depressive symptoms and other cognitive conditions. In one study, Mindstrong Health gathered a year’s worth of data on how people use their smartphones, such as scrolling through articles, typing and clicking. Mindstrong, whose founders include former leaders of the National Institutes of Health, modeled the timing and order of these actions to make assessments that correlated closely with gold-standard tests of cognitive function.
National organizations of mental health professionals have been following the expanding number of available apps over the years with keen interest. App Advisor is an initiative of the American Psychiatric Association that helps psychiatrists and other mental health professionals navigate the issues raised by mobile health technology. App Advisor does not rate or recommend particular apps but rather provides guidance about why apps should be assessed and how health professionals can do this.
A website that does review mental health apps is One Mind Psyber Guide, an independent nonprofit that partners with several national organizations. One Mind users can select among numerous search terms for the condition and therapeutic approach of interest. Apps are rated on a five-point scale, with reviews written by professionals in the field.
Do mental health apps related to depression have the kind of safety and effectiveness data required for medications and other medical interventions? Not always — and not often. Yet the overall results have shown early promise, Wittenborn noted.
“Studies that have attempted to detect depression from smartphone and wearable sensors [during a single session] have ranged in accuracy from about 86 to 89 percent,” Wittenborn said. “Studies that tried to predict changes in depression over time have been less accurate, with accuracy ranging from 59 to 85 percent.”
The Food and Drug Administration encourages the development of apps and has approved a few of them—mostly ones used by health professionals—but it is generally “hands off,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. The FDA has published a list of examples of software (including programming of apps) that it does not plan to regulate because they pose low risk to the public. First on the list is software that helps patients with diagnosed psychiatric conditions, including depression, maintain their behavioral coping skills by providing a “Skill of the Day” technique or message.
On its App Advisor site, the American Psychiatric Association says mental health apps can be dangerous or cause harm in multiple ways, such as by providing false information, overstating the app’s therapeutic value, selling personal data without clearly notifying users, and collecting data that isn’t relevant to mental health.
Although there is currently reason for caution, patients may eventually come to expect mental health professionals to recommend apps, especially as their rating systems, features and capabilities expand. Through such apps, patients might experience more and higher quality interactions with their mental health professionals. “Apps will continue to be refined and become more effective through future research,” said Wittenborn. “They will become more integrated into practice over time.”
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby