Chicago — A University of Illinois at Chicago professor has developed an app to better understand the human brain and to help people with mental illnesses.
Professor Alex Leow’s app, BiAffect, relies on computational research to analyze smartphone keyboard data patterns to learn about a person’s neuropsychological state. Leow told Block Club Chicago that it provides users with personalized data ranging from language and speech patterns that might indicate severe depression, suicidality and even manic episodes. She believes the app has the potential to help empower patients as they navigate relationships with their healthcare professionals.
“If we could present that biomarker information on a dashboard, the user can then take this information, they can learn about their brain biology, and we can take that information back to their psychiatrist or provider or neurologist,” Leow said. “That can close the loop, and I’m very excited about this possibility.”
As someone who grew up in Taiwan, Leow witnessed a culture of silence around mental health issues, which she believes worsened the mental health crisis in Asian communities. Through the creation of BiAffect, she not only wanted to find a way to tackle that in her community but for communities around the world.
“Sometimes I say that we are trying to turn science fiction into science,” said Leow, a biomedical engineering professor. “But sometimes crazy ideas are the ones that are going to really revolutionize the way we think about certain things.”
The app, which is currently used by citizen scientists to inform her research, also has the potential to expand into the content of messages on smartphones. Despite the possibilities that could allow for, Leow would only want to explore that side of the technology with the proper privacy guard rails in place. Additionally, she aims to involve consumers in each aspect of the app’s development.
Noah Johnson (he/him/his) is a Chicago-based journalist. Follow him on X: @noahwritestoo.
Edited by NaTyshca Pickett