Former Alphabet exec is working on an idea to detect mental health disorders by how you type on your phone

  • Thomas Insel departed from Verily, Alphabet's life sciences unit, earlier this week.
  • He sees huge potential in using smartphones to predict mental health disorders.
  • That includes tracking signals as subtle as how users type on their phone keyboards.
Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Can a smartphone detect whether a user is suicidal or depressed?

That's the promise of an exploding number of mental health entrepreneurs, who are exploring opportunities to monitor users' smartphone behavior to detect a variety of symptoms -- all with their consent.

Dr. Thomas Insel joined Verily, Alphabet's life sciences unit, less than two years ago to do just that.

Insel, a psychiatrist and the former chief of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, was tasked with forming a team dedicated to innovating in mental health with new technology. Insel remained quiet about his goals for the unit, until he left the company this week for a new startup.

CNBC broke the news of his departure on Tuesday, which marked the latest in a series of high-profile exits at Alphabet.

Insel insists that there's no scandal regarding his departure from Verily. Instead, he stressed that the project he founded is still ongoing, but under new leadership. His replacement at Verily is Danielle Schlosser, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF. Insel said he couldn't pass up an opportunity to co-found a stealth startup called Mindstrong, which has some exciting research in this area.

According to Insel, both Verily and Mindstrong are trying to determine whether smartphone behavior can predict the onset of suicide, depression, schizophrenia, or the signs of mania experienced by those with bipolar disorder. Users will download the app -- it won't be installed by phone makers, as that would feel more like surveillance.

Some of the indicators are more subtle than others. A person experiencing mania might suddenly embark on an online shopping buying spree, while someone with depression might withdraw from friends and family by declining to return texts. But Insel also sees opportunity to create a so-called "digital phenotype," meaning mapping mental health by tracking very small behavioral changes like keyboard strokes.

"There's a lot to the changes in how we type on keys; it's the speed; it's the latency," said Insel. "There's rich information there that hasn't really been mined."

Insel said that Mindstrong already has some promising preliminary research in this area.

Mental health technology is a big market opportunity, with studies finding that some 30% of people will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime -- and the majority of these people aren't getting the care that they need, according to the World Health Organization.

Smartphones could be a way to bridge the gap.

"In contrast with most of the technology in medicine, there's an opportunity in mental health to do everything on the phone," said Insel. It's not just detection and diagnosis, but also virtual visits with care providers, coaches and peers.

But Insel believes it's still early days for mental health technology. More than a dozen startups have been formed in this area, but he said that the "jury is still out" on whether any of this technology will change clinical outcomes for people in the long-run. It is far from clear whether a mobile monitoring system would result in false positives or false negatives if the technology is too sensitive -- or not sensitive enough.

Still, he said, it's important to try, as long as startups back up their claims with rigorous clinical research. As reports have found, some are more dedicated to that than others.

"We need something in the mental health space," he said. "It hasn't had the innovation or anything that has moved the needle in the past 3 or 4 decades."