CAMBRIDGE, MA—Mental illness, while often challenging, is very common. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in five adults experiences some form of mental health issue in any given year in the United States. The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that mental health problems are so common that one in four Americans will experience a mental health problem sometime during their lifetime.
Given these numbers, it’s clear that many people will eventually encounter a mental health challenge. And yet, diagnosing and treating mental illness remains stubbornly imprecise and relies primarily on a clinician’s observations and a patient’s self-reporting. As a result, patients seeking treatment can get stuck in a “treat and repeat” process, sometimes for years before making therapeutic progress.
“Clinicians rely largely on patient self-reporting to diagnose psychiatric disorders, guide treatment and track progress. It is an approach that can be subjective and vulnerable to bias, inaccuracy and incompleteness, potentially hindering the effectiveness of care,” said Andrea Webb, PhD, a trained psychophysiologist and a principal scientist at Draper. Webb, who develops tools for diagnosing mental health disorders as a member of Draper’s information and cognition division, believes that speeding up the path to developing a treatment plan and better understanding a patient’s response to treatment is vital to increasing its efficiency and effectiveness and improving patient outcomes.
Webb and her team set out to develop a wearable device to complement current clinical practice. Backed by decades of research, the team at Draper knew there would be value in monitoring a patient’s heart rate, skin sweating, respiration and pupil diameter, and analyzing the data with a set of algorithms to identify patterns that could help clinical care providers with screening, diagnosing and treatment monitoring.
Webb calls the device SysteMD™, which stands for System with Sensors to Evaluate Mental Disorders. SysteMD has been validated in pilot studies for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. A production version of SysteMD could consist of a headset, wristbands and an ankle band that can sense changes in a patient’s physiological and biological systems. In Webb’s description, SysteMD is a psychophysiological-based system designed to provide objective, quantitative indicators of mental health. “We are making the case for multi-modal fusion because no one measure is going to be sufficient. There is variability within and across individuals, and a multi-modal approach allows us to more fully characterize and understand an individual.”
Draper’s new system shows promise for addressing a number of mental health conditions, including depression, PTSD, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide. In tests, SysteMD accurately classified 82 to 94 percent of patients with PTSD. “With that level of accuracy, SysteMD shows promise for making a lasting impact on patients with mental illness—by enabling accurate diagnosis, supporting efficient treatment and ensuring effective monitoring over time,” Webb said. “We believe technology can augment current clinical practice by enabling psychophysiological measurement as a diagnostic aid and evaluation tool in the treatment of mental health disorders.”
Draper’s plan is to advance the development, implementation and commercialization of SysteMD and ultimately deliver a solution that supports the continuity of care and bridges the gap between the clinical setting, like a doctor’s office, and the real world. One day SysteMD could be used like a wristwatch or wearable fitness tracker, to provide accurate data and insights about a person’s mental health and wellness as they go about their day and, ideally, reduce instances of “treat and repeat” and potential relapse.