Mobile app that tracks bipolar manic and depressive episodes wins award

BiAffect app

Researchers from University of Illinois at Chicago along with collaborators at the University of Michigan and Sage Bionetworks, have won the Mood Challenge for ResearchKit, a New Venture Fund program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The team was developed by led by Dr. Alex Leow, associate professor of psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine and professor of bioengineering and computer science, and Peter Nelson, professor of computer science and dean of the UIC College of Engineering.

The winning app, called BiAffect, can unobtrusively monitor mobile device usage, including keyboard typing speed, to predict manic and depressive episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

“The vision for BiAffect is for it to serve as a kind of ‘fitness tracker’ for the brain,” said Leow. “The Mood Challenge helped us to realize this vision, and the finished app will be a first-of-its kind tool for researchers to study mood disorders and even cognitive disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”

BiAffect would also help researchers determine the efficacy of different treatments for bipolar and other mood disorders.

The app builds on the previous research, which Leow, Nelson and Kelly Ryan (clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan conducted with 30 participants to show that altered keystroke dynamics correlate with depressive and manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder.

“During a manic episode, people with bipolar disorder exhibit some common behaviors, such as talking really, really fast, with diminished self-control and flight of ideas,” Leow said. “It is thus natural that they also exhibit similar abnormalities in non-verbal communications that are typed on their phones.”

Bipolar disorder affects approximately 5.7 million, or 2.6 percent, of adult Americans, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Mood Challenge attracted more than 70 applications after it launched just over a year ago.