Apple sponsors a three-year UCLA study on depression and anxiety

The company will provide participants with Apple Watch and Beddit devices.

Chris Velazco / Engadget

With help from Apple, UCLA is launching a new three-year study to understand how factors like sleep and physical activity can impact depression and anxiety symptoms. The study will start this week with a pilot that will involve 150 participants drawn from the UCLA Health medical center. In 2021, the school will expand the study to include approximately 3,000 individuals and its student body.

Apple will provide study participants with Watch wearables and Beddit devices after they download an app to their iPhones. Beddit is a sleep tracker developed by a startup Apple acquired in 2017.

The university says it designed the study so that it could conduct it entirely remotely. Privacy was another major consideration. UCLA and Apple say they plan to anonymize any data they collect during the study.

The hope is that the study will lead to a breakthrough that will give healthcare workers a better way to spot the symptoms of depression and prevent potential depressive episodes. As the university notes, how the medical field goes about detecting depression hasn't changed significantly for more than a century. Much as they've done in the past, doctors currently observe patients and ask them how they feel.

“Current approaches to treating depression rely almost entirely on the subjective recollections of depression sufferers. This is an important step for obtaining objective and precise measurements that guide both diagnosis and treatment,” said Dr. Nelson Freimer, director of the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge.

Health has been an area of focus for Apple for the last couple of years, so it’s not a surprise to see an initiative like this from the company. In 2014, the company announced HealthKit, a service that tracks, records and analyzes your fitness level, as part of iOS 8. More recently, the company detailed how the latest features that are coming to watchOS 7, one of which is sleep tracking.