Can video games help monitor depression? These two scientists think so


The pandemic has had a terrible impact on people’s mental health, with young people reporting feeling more depressed and anxious than ever after long periods of lockdown and restrictions.

COVID-19 has brought health systems to the brink of collapse, and mental health services are struggling to keep up with growing numbers of people seeking help.

But what if patients had a different, more immediate tool to check in on their mental well-being? What about something that’s probably already in your hands most of the time – your smartphone?

It was the brainchild of two London-based scientists and entrepreneurs, Dr Emilia Molimpakis and Dr Stefano Goria, who created a smartphone app that can help diagnose and monitor depression using video game-like tools. and AI.

Thymia co-founders Emilia Molimpakis and Stefano Goria. /thymia

Thymia co-founders Emilia Molimpakis and Stefano Goria. /thymia

How can video games assess depression?

The app, called “thymia” (a suffix meaning “state of mind”), combines voice monitoring, facial expression reading AI and behavioral data to gauge how a user or patient is feeling. every time he interacts with the web. Platform.

“We look at both the way someone speaks – the acoustic properties of their voice – and also what they say,” says Molimpakis.

The pitch of your voice and the words you use can tell a lot about your psychological state, she says. For example, people with depression tend to use more personal pronouns, says Molimpakis.

“We also use your laptop or mobile phone camera to assess your gaze patterns, so where you look on the screen, as well as facial micro-expressions. So thousands of small data points on your face, like the areas where the muscles combine,” she adds.

“And finally, the last stream of data is behavioral data. And we collect it through specially designed video games, based on neuropsychology protocols.”

Within two to three minutes, the total duration of exercises and games on the app, thymia is able to make an accurate and objective assessment of the user’s mood – a result that the app will cross-check then and will combine with all the reactions gathered in a week, a month or a year.

In one of the games, patients have to click on each bumblebee on the screen, remembering which one they have already tapped. People with depression may have deficiencies in this type of memory cognition, according to Molimpakis. /thymia

In one of the games, patients have to click on each bumblebee on the screen, remembering which one they have already tapped. People with depression may have deficiencies in this type of memory cognition, according to Molimpakis. /thymia

How did it all start?

At the heart of the creation of this potentially game-changing technology is a deep human story. Molimpakis decided to create ‘thymia’ after a close friend of hers attempted suicide as her depression worsened, something her friends, family and clinicians failed to spot.

“I kind of watched her go through the whole thing. [health service] process, see a general practitioner, then a clinical psychologist, possibly a psychiatrist,” says Molimpakis.

“And what happened, even though she was seen so close by people in just three months, she ended up trying to kill herself.

“So nobody really saw how bad the situation was until it was actually too late, and I was one of the people who found it when it happened.

“And obviously, as a friend, you feel responsible, like why didn’t you see this? And how could this have happened? But really, what struck me was , you know – why? that, when they watched her?”

The time of a revolution

What happened to Molimpakis’ best friend made her look into the industry, and what she found was shocking: clinical psychology and psychiatry were still using methods that had remained unchanged and unchallenged for decades. .

“Some of the questions are the same since World War I, and they just use these subjective questionnaires that never give you a clear view of what’s going on,” she explains.

Questionnaires given to potential patients in the UK are prone to bias, easily manipulated and subjective, says Molimpakis, while she believes mental health disorders can be measured objectively.

“We want to show that they’re as real as any physical condition, so you shouldn’t stigmatize them either. Just like you wouldn’t stigmatize someone for having diabetes, you shouldn’t stigmatize someone for having diabetes. to have bipolar disorder,” she says. .

“Both require treatment, and both are equally important and part of the person.”

Before founding thymia in April 2020, Molimpakis had worked for 12 years with patients suffering from neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and mood disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. .

As a specialist in cognitive neuroscientists and linguistics, she viewed patients’ use of language as an indicator of their cognitive function. After briefly working for a company that asked him to produce a neuroscience-based video game, Molimpakis realized that video games could also be useful tools for monitoring mental health disorders.

“I realized that I could bring my language skills and adapt these video games, tweaking them to actually look at the science of depression,” she says.

She teamed up with Stefano Goria, an expert in multimodal artificial intelligence, to create thymia.

More than 85% of preclinical-stage users wanted to play the games daily just for fun, even without an exit, Molimpakis says. /thymia

More than 85% of preclinical-stage users wanted to play the games daily just for fun, even without an exit, Molimpakis says. /thymia

How could this technology be used?

Molimpakis and Goria say they don’t want to replace clinicians, but work hand-in-hand with them, providing “an objective measurement system and a set of tools”, which will help clinicians make a therapeutic choice while by enabling patients to better understand their conditions.

Is it already ready?

Thymia has just entered clinical trials, following a successful preclinical stage where thousands of people played the app and provided enough data to train the thymia models.

“We have approximately 3,500 hours of data on our platform, making it the largest multimodal depression dataset that exists,” says Molimpakis.

To its surprise, thymia’s aesthetically pleasing interface was found to be calming and enjoyable by an overwhelming majority of users, and the games were enjoyed by both young and old.

Last year, Molimpakis and Goria raised $1.5m to “develop” the app, and they are now planning to expand outside the UK.

“We have clinics [using thymia] in Greece, Spain and Italy, and we are now also expanding in the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the United States – potentially also in Germany,” Molimpakis told CGTN Europe.

Thymia is also looking to extend its area of ​​expertise from depression only to other disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“Our goal is to become the gold standard for the assessment of all cognitive disorders over the next 10 years,” Molimpakis said.

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