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Is Your iPhone a New Therapist or Antidepressant?


Stop popping pills and pick up an iPhone instead.

That's the message being sent by the researchers behind Mobilyze, a new iPhone app designed to help users overcome depression. According to Popular Science, the app uses a variety of data – such as your location, social activity and physical activity – to determine if a person is behaving normally. If a person is not, the app can do things to help the user overcome his or her negative feelings. For starters, Mobilyze can automatically text the user's family and friends, hoping to spark a motivating conversation. Alternatively, it can text the depressed user and attempt to persuade him/her to reach out to a friend or to get out of the house.

Is this a new wave of technological therapy? Not exactly, but it does feel like the beginning of something beautiful. Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has already showed us that the iPhone isn't just for games and Web surfing; it turns out that the popular device can also be used to start a garage band. (Or so the latest Siri commercial loosely claims.) I suppose if you can get Siri to call you “Rock God,” you might as well be able to get a little help with your depression.

While medical experts are likely to be against the idea of replacing traditional forms of medication and/or therapy with an iPhone app, it should be noted that Mobilyze is being developed by medical professionals (including David C. Mohr, PhD, who is leading the project) at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL.

“The primary focus of Dr. Mohr's research is to develop and evaluate behavioral intervention technologies (BITs) that harness web-based, mobile and sensor technologies to extend behavioral and psychological care into the patient's environment,” the team explained on its site. “His current work targets the treatment and prevention of depression, management of symptoms of chronic illness, and improving adherence to medications.”

Dr. Mohr aims to “optimize the usability and effectiveness of BITs” by understanding how people use them, as well as the factors “that influence adherence to BITs interventions through laboratory usability testing.” Those who are interested in participating in the study can sign up now. Only two requirements are provided: you must be at least 19 years old and have access to a computer, broadband Internet, and an e-mail account. (In other words, if you're 19 years or older, you should be good to go.)

Thinking ahead, one has to wonder what the world will be like if the iPhone could actually substitute for traditional ways of dealing with depression, if only for more minor cases. This could be a great way to eliminate the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary prescription meds passed around each year. Drug companies wouldn't be too happy about this, as it would surely cut into their bottom line. But it could also reduce the amount of money spent on healthcare each year, which ultimately makes it more affordable for all of us.

Mobilyze (and other therapeutic apps) could target health-conscious consumers by reminding them that, unlike traditional prescription meds, these iPhone apps don't come with a full page of side effects. There might not be any side effects at all, actually, which could make the iPhone an ideal alternative.

This virtual form of therapy does not have to be limited to iPhones; Android, Windows Phone 7, and other mobile operating systems could also pick it up.

But can it really work?

At its current stage, Mobilyze will likely be successful in getting some people out of the house, and will probably lead to a few positive conversations with friends or relatives that brighten the mood of those who are depressed. But we don't need an iPhone app for that. For starters, a depressed person could simply go outside. He or she could also pick up the phone and call a friend. No one needs an iPhone to remind them to do that.

Where Mobilyze may be most effective is with consumers who rely heavily on technology and are more likely to do something when influenced by their favorite device. For those people, Mobilyze may be just the thing they need to put an end to a depressing day.

Long-term, however, as the iPhone and other smartphones become more powerful, as artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent, and as Siri becomes more talkative (and, perhaps, a little more real), we could definitely see a new breed of mood-improving apps.

Follow me @LouisBedigian


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