App frees mental health patients from their ‘chains’

Lifegraph lets doctors keep an eye on user behavior, track patients’ condition while enabling them to leave hospital

A view of the inside of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
A view of the inside of the Kfar Shaul psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem (Photo credit: Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

An Israeli start-up is seeking to do for the mind what heart and blood pressure monitoring devices are doing for the body — allow tracking anywhere, freeing  mental health patients — and society — from the expensive burden of 24/7 care in institutions.

That’s the potential of Lifegraph, according to co-founder Keren Sela, describing a smartphone app that can detect changes in patients’ behavioral patterns and transmit them to professionals in real time. The app is in the testing process.

“It’s a platform for psychiatrists to keep track of their patients, checking on how they communicate, how they sleep, what activities they are engaged in,” Sela told The Times of Israel. “All of these behaviors can give an indication of their mental condition, how they are progressing with treatment, whether a change in treatment is needed.” Research on the application was presented in March at the Israel Society for Biological Psychiatry’s annual conference.

A good example of how it works, said Sela’s partner and co-founder Dr. Uri Nevo, is bipolar disorder, “which starts with a manic episode. A patient who usually makes five or 10 calls a day might suddenly start making dozens of calls a day. How much they talk, text, how many places they visit, when they go to bed and for how long — these are all indicators of mental health and provide important insights to clinicians who want to catch a disorder before it is full blown.”

“The diagnosis of mental health disease is based only on behavioral patterns,” said Nevo. “In some cases, a patient is discharged from the hospital into a vacuum, with no idea how to monitor his or her new state of mind. Because most people own smartphones today, we thought, ‘Why not harness the smartphone, a reservoir of daily activities, to monitor behavioral patterns?’”

The app was developed by Nevo and Sela, along with scientists from TAU’s Faculty of Engineering and Sagol School of Neuroscience. The researchers conducted two Helsinki-approved clinical trials with the cooperation and direction of leading psychiatrists from Geha Mental Health Center and Be’er Ya’acov Mental Health Center.

In the trials, the application was installed on the smartphones of 20 patients suffering from bipolar, unipolar/depressive, or schizo-affective disorders, as well as on the phones of 20 healthy participants. Over the course of six months, the app acquired data from patients’ phones and sent the information to distant computers, where advanced algorithms analyzed the data to detect changes in patients’ sleep, communication, mobility, and vocal patterns. The researchers also developed a visualization system that displayed the summarized information for psychiatrists, providing them with insight into patients’ behavior trends. “We’re also developing a web interface for psychiatrists to log onto and check patients’ records,” said Sela.

Mental health treatment is extremely privacy-sensitive, and Sela said that the platform has the latest security tech built in. “The only person who has access to the data is the caregiver. We do not access any of the information,” said Sela. According to Nevo, a patient using the app has full control over who has access to the behavioral patterns recorded and analyzed by it. “We take great care to protect the patient’s privacy,” said Nevo. “The content of calls and texts is completely ignored and never acquired or recorded, and any identifying parameters of the patient or of his contacts are irreversibly masked and are obviously not used.”

The three-month trial has yielded positive results, the Lifegraph team reports. According to Sela, one patient who dropped out of the trial and subsequently was hospitalized for an incident told his psychiatrist, “If I had kept the app on my phone, you would have immediately noticed the unusual number of phone calls I was making, and this hospitalization could have been prevented.”

Lifegraph was a member of the recent graduating class of the 8200 Entrepreneurship and Innovation Support Program (EISP), an accelerator run by the Alumni Association of the Israeli army’s Unit 8200, where much of the army’s advanced communications and networking technology is developed. The program accepts 20 entrepreneurs a year out of over 200 who apply, according to EISP head Inbal Ariel. They participate in a five month program led by 8,200 alumni and top professionals in business, banking, technology, and many other areas, who come to speak and serve as mentors.

Lifeforce got considerable help from the program, said Sela. “We had the opportunity to speak to many people in the investment community, like angels, who we would never be able to get the attention of. The program brought them directly to us.”

Nevo and Sela are optimistic about the future of Lifegraph. “We have a way to go until such a system will be proven effective and adopted by the psychiatric community,” said Nevo. “However, psychiatrists, as well as US federal policymakers in the field, agree that such tools are necessary to improve psychiatric practice.”

Sela said that she could see a scenario where an app like this becomes mandatory for patients who are released from care in mental institutions, at least for a specific period. “Psychiatrists could prescribe Lifegraph like they prescribe drugs,” she said. “The caregiver, the patient, and society all have a stake in our app’s success.”

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