Trinity team launches smartphone app to research mental health

The app seeks to encourage the public to participate in science

Researchers at the Trinity College Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) have launched a smartphone app to carry out varied research projects which are designed to tackle mental disorders. 

Around 450 million people worldwide currently suffer from a mental or neurological disorder, and 50 million are living with dementia. As the global population grows, the numbers are set to rise over the next 20 to 30 years. 

Though many people are affected by mental health disorders, there is difficulty in brain health research as large sample sizes are needed to produce compelling and reproducible data sets. To identify what predisposes the brain to develop mental and neurological disorders, thousands of participants are needed to produce conclusive results. 

Dr. Claire Gillan, GBHI Faculty, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Trinity and Principal Investigator, hopes to tackle the problem with Neureka, an app which has a collection of fun games for the user, and also allows researchers to identify what predisposes the brain to develop mental health disorders and how and why the brain changes over time. 

At the moment, researchers are able to find small effects in groups with specific mental disorders, such as groups of people with depression or dementia. This allows scientists to discover lifestyle factors or early events that differentiate these groups. However, very little information can be found when looking only at the individuals within these groups. 

To combat this, Dr. Gillian states that Neureka will use “modern techniques of data science to bring together multiple layers of evidence, so we can start to make predictions that are meaningful on an individual subject level, not at these group levels findings, which we can’t really action clinically”.

With Neureka, the public participates in brain health research. The app includes a section for mental health questionnaires which help researchers define mental health along a continuum, rather than discrete categories. The app allows users to track how they feel at certain times of the day, in order to investigate any broad connections between the time and their mood. Neureka also includes sections on modifiable risk factors of dementia. 

Additionally, there are “Brain games” within the app which help researchers understand certain symptoms of dementia, and questionnaires which allow researchers to collect further data on cognition and brain health.

Dr. Gillian said: “The goal here is to understand all the different ways people keep their brains healthy. The app is for everyone – those who personally struggle with their mental health, have family risk or have no problems whatsoever. Whoever you are, your data is a crucial part of the puzzle and will help us build the most detailed models possible of what we can and cannot control in the fight against disorders of the mind.”

The research could lead to developing effective measures of treating and preventing the development of mental and neurological conditions. 

Neureka is funded by the Global Brain Health Institute and Science Foundation Ireland under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Discover Programme Call 2019 and collaborates with the ADAPT centre. The app is available to download for free on Apple App Store and Google Play Store.