6 Ways Technology Can Help Mental Health Disorders

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Today is World Mental Health Day. Mental health issues affect hundreds of millions of people around the globe; according to the World Health Organization, some 300 million suffer from depression, and another 260 million grapple with anxiety disorders. While researchers haven't developed any breakthrough mental health drugs in nearly three decades, new technological innovations are helping some patients connect with a therapist, get diagnosed, track moods, manage or mitigate symptoms, and stick to treatments. Here are just a sampling of them.

1. APPS FOR EVERYTHING FROM PTSD TO ADDICTION

The "there's an app for that" slogan is now true for the complex world of mental health care. There are thousands. Some apps are targeted at users with specific conditions, such as anxiety, schizophrenia, or depression, and are designed to assuage and manage symptoms, track moods and thoughts, or help individuals stick with treatments. Others are aimed at improving memory, coping, and thinking skills, or managing stress through meditation or mindfulness. There are also apps for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and addiction. The list goes on.

Mental health apps have plenty of benefits, including convenience, anonymity, and a low price. But experts caution prospective users against using them as a stand-in for professional treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Most aren't backed by peer-reviewed research or clinical trials, partially because tech development moves faster than traditional scientific testing. Confidentiality is also a major issue, as many of these apps don't adhere to standard healthcare privacy guidelines.

Yet some preliminary studies have shown that they can yield patient improvements. Vet any app you're considering with a doctor or therapist, focusing on ones that rely on evidence-based treatment such as cognitive behavior therapy. Double-check the app developer's credentials before downloading: The most trustworthy are typically affiliated with academic research institutions or government agencies, according to the American Psychological Association. And choose one with an intuitive interface; it will be easier to stick with, so you might see better outcomes.

To learn more about the pros and cons, visit the NIMH's comprehensive report on the subject.

2. ONE-ON-ONE THERAPY THROUGH VIDEO AND TEXT

With a shortage of mental health professionals in the U.S., online or mobile therapy appears to be a good solution for prospective patients who can't find an available one in their area. It's also promising for those who simply don't have the time or resources for in-person appointments, or are afraid of stigma.

Some services or platforms allow users to connect with therapists via voice or video on a computer or phone. Others are text-based and allow patients to send unlimited messages via their phones, 24/7, for a flat monthly fee.

3. BEHAVIOR TRACKERS THAT MAY INDICATE AN IMPENDING MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

While some mental health apps are designed to deliver outcomes (an improved mood, lessened anxiety), researchers are also working to harness mobile technology to detect suicidal inclinations, burgeoning manic episodes, or depressive episodes before they manifest.

One such scientist is Dr. Thomas Insel, a psychiatrist and former head of the NIMH. After a stint with Verily, the life sciences unit of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Insel left the tech giant to co-found a start-up called Mindstrong. Both organizations, he told CNBC, are working on apps that monitor users' smartphone behavior—with permission from the user.

For example, if a user starts typing more rapidly than normal, their syntax changes, or they indulge in impulsive shopping sprees, that might be an indicator that they're manic. If they don't respond to texts from family and friends, they might be depressed. Together, this data collection could create what Insel calls a "digital phenotype," which could be described as a personalized mental health map. This could help users or their loved ones mitigate any potential crises through preventative treatment.

This line of research is promising, but Insel noted that it's still unclear whether the approach will yield long-term outcomes for patients—or if the tech itself is fine-tuned enough to observe behavior changes.

4. SMART SOFTWARE THAT FINDS AT-RISK PATIENTS IN MEDICAL RECORDS

Some insurance companies are now using cloud-based software platforms to review electronic medical records and insurance claims data to identify patients at risk for developing mental health conditions like depression. Then, they connect them with appropriate treatments through a network of behavioral health specialists.

5. VIRTUAL-REALITY TREATMENTS

In addition to treating PTSD with medication, therapy, and exercise, some physicians use a technique called exposure therapy, which is designed to help patients relive trauma-related phenomena in a controlled, safe environment, such as a doctor's office. This helps patients get habituated to the memories so they no longer trigger flashbacks and anxiety. Scientists have tested VR as a tool for exposure therapy in clinical trials, and a handful of clinicians around the U.S. are now trained to use it in their practices.

Headsets whisk patients back in time using a combination of images and sounds. While wearing the headsets, subjects discuss past experiences with therapists until they become desensitized to the triggers before them.

Meanwhile, researchers like Yale scientist Sarah Fineberg are using computer games and VR to understand feelings of social rejection in people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), a complicated condition in which sufferers have a hard time regulating emotions, have a distorted sense of self, and are prone to extreme mood swings, especially towards the people in their lives. 

6. A GOOGLE SCREENING THAT LETS YOU KNOW IF YOU'RE DEPRESSED

Google recently teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a nationwide grassroots mental health advocacy group, to offer a mental health screening questionnaire to U.S. residents who search for "depression" on their mobile phones. The top result is a box called a "knowledge panel," which has information on depression, its symptoms, and potential treatments. To get screened, click the option "Check if you're clinically depressed" to take a confidential, medically backed self-assessment quiz.

FDA Recalls Thyroid Medications Due to Contamination Risk

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Hypothyroid medications manufactured by Westminster Pharmaceuticals have been recalled after it was discovered that one of the company’s Chinese suppliers failed to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards, CNN reports.

The oral tablets contain levothyroxine (LT4) and liothyronine (LT3), which are both synthetic hormones used to treat thyroid conditions.

The medicine was recalled as a precaution after it was discovered during a 2017 FDA inspection that the Chinese supplier in question, Sichuan Friendly Pharmaceutical Co., was not practicing good manufacturing practices.

However, patients with serious thyroid conditions shouldn’t throw out their pills just yet. No adverse effects from the medication have been reported, and the risk of not taking the medication outweighs the risk of taking a recalled pill.

According to the FDA, “Because these products may be used in the treatment of serious medical conditions, patients taking the recalled medicines should continue taking their medicine until they have a replacement product.”

For more information on the specific lots and products in question, visit the FDA’s website.

[h/t CNN]

A 'Zombie Gene' Might Be the Reason Elephants Rarely Get Cancer

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When it comes to cancer rates in the animal kingdom, elephants are an anomaly. As Popular Science notes, cancer should be more common among larger species, but with elephants, that simply isn’t the case. Only about 5 percent of elephants die from cancer, compared to 11 to 25 percent of humans.

In a new study, published in Cell Reports, University of Chicago researchers found what’s believed to be the genetic source of elephants’ cancer immunity. Elephants, like all mammals, have a gene called LIF that is known to suppress tumors. Humans have one copy of this gene, but elephants have 10 copies, which have developed over 80 million years of evolution. However, only one of those copies, called LIF6, is functional in elephants.

The other LIF copies are essentially dead because they lack a specific piece of DNA to make them function. At some point during the evolutionary process, the LIF6 gene copy turned back on, but scientists don’t know why or when this occurred. This “zombie gene” helps kill mutated cells, in true Night of the Living Dead fashion.

“This reanimation of LIF6 occurred perhaps over 59 million years,” Joshua Schiffman, who studies cancer in elephants but was not involved in the study, told Popular Science. “That’s an amazingly long period of time for nature to modify and perfect an anticancer mechanism.”

Scientists aren’t yet sure how this could be applied to cancer research in humans, but they say it’s a promising start and a creative approach to the problem. While these findings are still fresh and need to be duplicated, it raises the possibility of creating a drug that mimics the function of LIF6.

[h/t Popular Science]

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