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An App To Investigate The Biological Mysteries Of Depression

Instead of periodic mental health checkups, this app tracks how you’re feeling every day, and what activities and events affect your emotions.

An App To Investigate The Biological Mysteries Of Depression
Emotions via Shutterstock

“Depression” is a term that covers many conditions–it isn’t one thing. Your depression isn’t my depression, because the main causes are biological and hereditary. That’s why some well-known anti-depressants, like Zoloft and Prozac, work with some people, and not with others.

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If we want to design better therapies, we really need to know the genetic basis for depression. Which is the point of an interesting project now seeking your help on Microryza, the crowd-funding platform for scientific research.

The aim of “Crowdcuring The Blues” is to develop a mobile app that tracks depressed people’s moods. It will ask participants questions like “On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate your mood right now?” It then prompts them to note daily activities, like when they read a book or play tennis. The volunteers have already participated in the People Genome Project, at Harvard Medical School, which for the last six years has been building a collection of genomes from willing volunteers. By adding in the day-by-day information, the “Crowdcuring” project will begin to separate depressed people into different groups, and open up opportunities for new analysis, and, perhaps, new therapies.

The project is being developed by Preston Estep and Alex Hoekstra, from the Mind First Foundation, who are hoping to raise at least $10,000.

“With mental health, it’s not something you can measure once and be done with it,” Hoekstra says. “Someone can answer questions about their physical health twice a year, and you get a pretty good read. With this, you need a more dynamic view: ‘How do you feel today?'”

About 10% of the 3,000 PGP participants have declared themselves depressed (which is a slightly larger proportion than in the general population). By the end of the year, the PGP hopes to have at least 5,000 volunteers, widening the potential depression group further.

“When we get different classes of people stratified in meaningful ways, with things like medication responses, we can look for correlations with their genes,” says Estep. “Once we know what genes are involved in a person’s depression, then we can start to think about targeted therapies, given the function and where in the brain that gene is active.”

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Estep and Hoekstra also plan to use volunteers to analyze the data at a later stage. Through the participation the volunteers, the funding for the app, and the analytics, they want the project to be truly collaborative–“crowdcuring” indeed.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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