Brooding in your apartment on Saturday afternoon? A new smart phone intuits when you’re depressed and will nudge you to call or go out with friends.

It’s the future of therapy at a new Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine center where scientists are inventing web-based, mobile and virtual technologies to treat depression and other mood disorders. The phone and similar projects bypass traditional weekly therapy sessions for novel approaches that provide immediate support and access to a much larger population.

“We’re inventing new ways technology can help people with mental health problems,” said psychologist David Mohr, director of the new Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies and a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School. “The potential to reduce or even prevent depression is enormous.”

“These new approaches could offer fundamentally new treatment options to people who are unable to access traditional services or who are uncomfortable with standard psychotherapy,” Mohr added. “They also can be offered at significantly lower costs, which makes them more viable in an era of limited resources.”

The goal is for the center to become a national resource, offering a library of intervention technologies that will be available to other researchers.

Among the center’s projects:


A smart phone spots symptoms of depression by harnessing all the sensor data within the phone to interpret a person's location, activity level (via an accelerometer), social context and mood.

Are you making phone calls and getting e-mails, or are you home alone ruminating for hours? If the phone – which learns your usual patterns -- senses you are isolated, it will send you a suggestion to call or see friends. The technology, which still is being tweaked, is called Mobilyze! and has been tested in a small pilot study. It helped reduce symptoms of depression.

The new phone offers a powerful new level of support for people who have depression and intervenes to help them change their behavior in real time.

“By prompting people to increase behaviors that are pleasurable or rewarding, we believe that Mobilyze! will improve mood,” Mohr said. “It creates a positive feedback loop. Someone is encouraged to see friends, then enjoys himself and wants to do it again. Ruminating alone at home has the opposite effect and causes a downward spiral.”

Darren Gergle, associate professor of communication studies in the School of Communication, is a co-investigator on the project.

Also in the works at the National Institutes of Health-funded center: a virtual human therapist who will work with teens to prevent depression; a medicine bottle that reminds you to take antidepressant medication and tells your doctor if the dosage needs adjusting; a web-based social network to help cancer survivors relieve sadness and stress.

by Marla Paul is the health sciences editor at Northwestern



Appreciate the write-up on the potential effectiveness of this emerging technology in the mental health field. It will be interesting to see if technology can support our needs productively (connection, happiness, fulfillment, etc.) vs. destructively (isolation, self-medication, etc.).

A smartphone which can sense your mood and advice you to get a life. seems interesting! but, should we depend on technology for every small thing in our life?

I found article about this case: Worth reading.

I think that it is important to always keep researching new ways to help people. I will always be in favor of face to face treatment, but some will never seek this out. They should have options, and why not keep exploring the technology that we currently possess.

Just lookin for to be able to I will genuinely anxious about this kind of Mobilyze merchandise. I do think this may assist people to a good deal. Therefore i'm from the well being discipline and discover every day precisely how men and women receive afflicted by despression symptoms. Regardless of whether you However this kind of app can only support 10% of folks being affected by despression symptoms, it could be a hit. Many thanks for this great write-up, ?t had been an incredibly entertaining learn.

Greetings from Florida! I'm bored to tears at work so I decided to browse your site on my iphone during lunch break. I really like the info you present here and can't wait to take a look when I get home. I'm amazed at how fast your blog loaded on my mobile .. I'm not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, great site!

Hi, Marla Paul. I just want to say I'm really excited about this Mobilyze product. I think this will help people a lot. I am in the health field and see everyday how people get affected by depression. Even if this application can only help 10% of people suffering from depression, it would be a success. Thanks for this great article, it was a really fun read.

Great ideas of creating web based treatment for depression. I think in this way it will reduce suicidal attempts and lower the cases of this kind to people.

Of course it is beautiful idea and service; really it is very interesting service by our mobile. I think the smart phone brought a new revolution in health service field with beneficial way. Thanks for information.

The goal of providing immediate help to a majority of the population is lofty. If they can bridge the gap of high tech to high touch than it will truly become a value to people with mobile phones. In the end it will come down to how effective it can become.

It will be of great help to people who are lonely and depressed. It can be a substitute to psychotherapy.

I believe that this is definitely a great idea. Having a smart phone that identifies and senses depressions symptoms and then intervenes to help change behavior in real time will absolutely improve moods in people with depression. Very innovative idea.

Imagination is the core inspiration of technological creations. But it is not the antidote to 'biological' regressions: It is merely a 'facilitator.' 'Phone therapy' is an interesting subject but assuming that a gadget would act as the "therapist" is somewhat far-fetched, don't you think? I'd rather think the gadget in terms of 'interface' - enabling people to communicate. SO even if a mobile gadget that could assist in offering therapy were created, it would not be the phone that offers the therapy - it would be the form and make of what kind of therapy is being given THROUGH the phone :)

Wow, that is a phenomenal breakthrough if it works. So often people suffering from depression aren't able to reach out, but camaraderie and social interaction can lift the spirits. Thanks for posting on this, I think it's a great idea and I'm going to keep my eye on it. I know several people that could really be helped by something like this.

I don't know. I'm skeptical about using a mobile phone app to treat depression. Prolonged depression is something to take serious and thinking that my phone will recognize my depression and help me is simplistic thinking. It is best to seek real social contact to caring people or professional advice from a counselor. Smart phones isolate people more than they connect people!

Interesting idea, but "go out with friends" or "call a friend" seems a bit too simplistic for overcoming depression. What if you don't have any friends? I could see this working in conjunction with other treatment, but not in its own.

Interesting idea, but I think it will be quite a few years off yet. The think the main problem they will have to overcome is getting the timing right. When should the phone nudge you to call a friend for example. Get the timing wrong and it could turn into little more than annoyance. Even when depressed, some people just like to be left alone.

I believe that this is definitely a great idea. Having a smart phone that identifies and senses depressions symptoms and then intervenes to help change behavior in real time will absolutely improve moods in people with depression. Very innovative idea.Thanks for sharing with us..

Technology can be a tool. It cannot be the master. At the end of the day it is meaningless to first create tools and then create human dependence on it to such an extent that they it is machines calling the shots. Better to invest in and create opportunities for people to get out and interact with other people rather than being prodded into action by their iPhones!

I find it depressing that such an app could find credence among sensible people. It is primarily due to technology that people become isolated in the first place. Unfortunately people just don't talk to each other face to face anymore.

This is the right blog for anyone who wants to find out about this topic. You realize so much its almost hard to argue with you (not that I actually would want to).You definitely put a new spin on a topic that’s been written about for years. Great stuff, just great!

Very insightful article. I believe thinking globally and acting locally is a start. But I agree we have a long way to go. I will be back to read more; keep up the good work.

I think this is a great idea. Sometimes, with some people, they might be to shy to reach out and ask for help. And it helps to treat moods once detected. Sometimes, in a blink of an eye, your mood might change and lead to depression. All for Technology!