A study examining the onset of depression could be used to develop a smartphone-based app that tracks your mood and alerts you when to seek help.
Climate systems, ecosystems, even the stock market, experience changes that sometimes result in a ‘tipping point’. Recent research suggests some of these event are preceded by a phenomenon known as “critical slowing down” (CSD).
A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found there is a similar critical tipping point for the onset of, or recovery from, depression.
“[Yet] despite the enormous societal costs of this incapacitating disorder, it is largely unknown how the likelihood of falling into a depressive episode can be assessed,” she writes.
Van de Leemput, a doctoral student of Aquatic Ecology and Water Quality Management at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, says critical slowing down is seen in a range of complex systems including ocean and climate ecosystems and financial markets.
To determine whether the human mood system followed the same principles, the team asked 535 people from the general population and 93 people with depression, to track their moods across five or six days.
The study participants were given a watch that beeped randomly 10 times a day.
Each time the watch beeped the participants were asked to rank four emotions: cheerful, content, anxious and sad.
Van de Leemput says the team then analysed the data to detect patterns of CSD in depressed patients moving towards recovery, and general population participants moving into depression.
The group’s results show there is an elevated chance of shifts between a normal and depressed mood state in people who show indications of critical slowing down in their emotion scores.
“In persons who are more likely to have a future transition, mood dynamics are slower and different aspects of mood are more correlated,” the researchers write.
Van de Leemput says the work has implications for treatment.
“If through monitoring you can see stability in a healthy person is decreasing, you can try to help them back to stability and can prevent them hitting that tipping point to depression,” she says.
“Also if a person is depressed and you have an idea of how far they are from recovery you might consider different treatments. If they are close to the tipping point [to recovery] you might use therapy, further away you might consider medication.”
Technology improving treatment
Professor Andrew Page, from the School of Psychology at the University of Western Australia, describes the study as “useful work” that has the potential to aid mental health treatment.
He says improvements in technology are being now harnessed to monitor symptoms of depression to improve treatment of sufferers.
“If you can provide early warning signs then people can contact mental health services quickly if they are about to [move into a depressed state], or if they are on the road to recovery can reallocate resources somewhere else,” Page says.
He says because the study uses very complex mathematical concepts it is hard to judge exactly what the researchers have done.
However, he compares it to the science behind the prediction of avalanches in ski fields.
“Mathematical sophistication is needed before you can get to this simple application which is a sign that says, ‘You shouldn’t ski here’.”
“This is the first step in that process. The mathematics is just being developed. We’ll all be more impressed when we can see the simple application on the smart phone that says: ‘You should be worried now’.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC News’ on 12 December 2013.