A new study suggests that smartwatch digital phenotypes can predict changes in psychiatric symptoms in patients with psychotic disorders. The research, conducted by a team of researchers from several institutions in Greece, monitored 35 patients with schizophrenia and bipolar spectrum disorders for up to 14 months using a commercial smartwatch. The device provided continuous data on fine and gross motor activity, heart rate and heart rate variability, and sleep patterns.
In the context of the study, psychopathology refers to the symptoms and behavioral patterns associated with psychotic disorders. The study found that increased heart rate during wakefulness and sleep correlated with increases in positive psychopathology, while decreased heart rate variability and an increase in its monthly variance were associated with increases in negative psychopathology. Self-reported physical activity, on the other hand, did not correlate with changes in psychopathology.
The study’s findings suggest that healthcare providers may be able to predict changes in positive and negative symptoms of patients with psychotic disorders over time by analyzing digital data obtained from their smartwatches. This provides potential for future clinical use in predicting and managing these disorders.
Digital phenotyping, the use of digital devices to monitor and characterize behavior, is an emerging field in psychiatry. Proponents argue that it has the potential to improve the accuracy of diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses by providing objective and continuous measurements of patients’ symptoms and functioning. The technique has been applied to a wide range of psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
Previous studies have also found associations between smartwatch data and mental health outcomes. A study published last year in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, for example, found that smartwatch data predicted symptoms of depression and anxiety in college students. Another study, published in the journal Schizophrenia Bulletin in 2019, found that activity data from smartphones and wearables could predict the onset of psychosis in high-risk individuals.
However, some experts caution that digital phenotyping is still in its early stages, and that more research is needed to validate its usefulness and address potential ethical and privacy concerns. Critics argue that the approach could lead to overdiagnosis, overtreatment, or stigmatization of patients, and that patients’ consent and control over their data need to be ensured.
Despite the challenges, digital phenotyping is gaining traction in the mental health field, and has the potential to transform the way mental illnesses are diagnosed, treated, and understood. The Smartwatch digital phenotypes study, and other related research, highlight the promise and complexity of this emerging field, and point to a future where digital devices could be an integral part of mental health care.