Science seeks a better way to measure stress, anxiety and depression

Clinical depression and stress-related emotional disorders are responsible for high rates of suicide, the leading cause of death in young people ages 15 to 24.

Nationally, some 20% of the population will experience a mental health disorder during their lifetime, and globally these disorders cost the economy $2.5 trillion every year.

Yet there are no objective tests in use that can diagnose these disorders, says Leanne Williams, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford. Instead, the “gold standard” for psychiatric diagnosis is a verbal interview, asking patients how they feel, etc. “Imagine if you were diagnosing and treating diabetes without tests, without sensors. It’s really impossible to imagine, yet that’s what we’re doing for mental health right now,” says Williams, who spoke about the research at Stanford’s recent Reunion Homecoming Weekend festivities.

Williams and her colleagues are working on a project called Mentaid, which aims to understand mental health by finding measurable links between brain activity and the production of certain hormones. Ultimately, the researchers aim to develop wearable devices that will measure brain activity related to emotional distress or disorder.

The science underlying that goal is complex.

The researchers are aware of six different circuits that the brain engages. These circuits control particular types of activity. When the activity concludes, the circuit should switch off. But stress and anxiety can disrupt that cycle, and a circuit that should switch off stays on, resulting in states like hyperanxiety or an inability to focus.

Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford who is working with Williams, says that the presence of cortisol, a type of hormone that humans routinely excrete in sweat, is an important indicator of stress. The researchers are examining cortisol’s relationship to factors such as heart rate and skin conductivity and the six brain states they have observed.

The group is developing an early prototype of a wearable that would collect information on those variables and give doctors and the wearer insight into their mental health.

Their work is funded by the Stanford Catalyst for Collaborative Solutions, an initiative launched in 2016 to inspire campus-wide collaborations to tackle some of the world’s most urgent challenges.


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