Can Mental Health Apps Work for Depression?
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.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.