It’s been widely reported that Apple is working on developing a number of advanced health tools, ranging from blood glucose monitoring to body-temperature-based fertility. Now, a new report claims that Apple is also working with the University of California, Los Angeles and pharmaceutical company Biogen to see if its gadgets can detect depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline.
Citing anonymous Apple sources, the Wall Street Journal says that iPhone sensor data could potentially be used to detect patterns associated with mental health conditions and cognitive impairment. These are two separate research projects. Apple’s partnership with UCLA is reportedly codenamed “Seabreeze” and focuses on depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, its partnership with Biogen is dubbed “Pi” and centers around mild cognitive decline, according to WSJ.
There are few notable takeaways from the WSJ report. For starters, the UCLA project reportedly involves data from iPhone cameras, keyboards, and audio sensors. It also takes into account Apple Watch data related to movement, vital signs, and sleep. This includes everything from facial expressions, speaking patterns, walking pace and frequency, typing speed, content, and a variety of other health metrics. The data is then compared to results from a questionnaire about a user’s emotions and even levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in research participants’ hair. The reported Biogen partnership is also studying data in a similar way and supposedly follows a 2019 feasibility study that showed 31 adults with cognitive impairment used their Apple devices differently from a group of older adults with no impairment.
Another thing to note: So far, Apple’s health detection features have mostly centered around its Apple Watch, as it has the necessary sensors to track vital signs like heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood oxygen levels. Most memorably, it introduced FDA-cleared atrial fibrillation detection with the Series 4 in 2018. If the WSJ report is correct, these two studies, however, are now utilizing sensor and health data collected via the iPhone.
This would be a credible development when you consider that in iOS 15, Apple has added a new feature called Walking Steadiness to its Health app. The feature utilizes iPhone sensors to detect whether a person is at risk of a serious fall in a 12-month period.
However, while people are more likely to share step counts and exercise minutes, data collected from iPhone cameras and mental health status are extremely sensitive. Mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, come with serious stigma, prejudice, and discrimination that may discourage people from seeking help—and that’s even if people have access to such resources to begin with. Apple has always underscored that its Health app data is private, and the WSJ report notes that Apple plans for the associated algorithms to work locally on Apple devices without sending data to Apple’s servers. However, you only need to look as far as Apple’s recent controversy with its proposed child pornography detection feature to see that consumers are still wary of giving up their privacy—even if it’s for a “noble” cause.
Most importantly, however, this research is in early stages and may never see the light of day. Medical, or medical-adjacent health features require tech companies to navigate numerous regulatory hurdles. Sure, Apple’s ECG feature may have been birthed from a research partnership with Stanford University—but it also required Apple to obtain FDA clearance for the Series 4. Apple’s rumored blood glucose monitoring feature has been reportedly in the works since at least 2017 and has no signs of showing up anytime soon.
Crucially, while you might think of “depression detection” as a potential diagnostic feature, it likely wouldn’t be. So far, wearable companies have only gone as far as to say, “Hey, your health data indicates that you may be at risk for this condition. You may want to consult a medical professional.” Most responsible health tech will never claim to actually diagnose a condition, lest it incurs the wrath of regulatory bodies or the liabilities associated with misdiagnosis.
As for why anyone would even want something like depression or cognitive decline detection? Much of it has to do with early detection. Signs for both depression and cognitive decline can be easily missed but can lead to more serious conditions. Access to specialists may also be limited for many people, but nearly everyone these days has a smartphone. Generally, the aim of these kinds of health tech features is wider accessibility.
This news isn’t exactly surprising. Apple’s clearly invested a lot into health research—as have other major companies, including Fitbit, Google, and Samsung. At this stage, however, it’s helpful if we all have a healthy dose of skepticism as to what these potential health features may be able to do, and the massive hurdles that must be cleared before they can ever reach the public.