Researchers from the University of Maryland, College Park have secured a $3.4 million grant to study the causes of pathologial anxiety and depression, specifically in college students.
In addition to traditional clinical measures and brain imaging scans, the team plans to use smartphones to collect data from their 240 subjects, said Alex Shackman, the assistant professor of psychology who is leading the study.
During four, one-week periods over the course of the 30-month study, participants will receive eight text messages per day directing them to a web-based questionnaire where they can enter data about their feelings, behavior and social social settings — whether they are alone or with friends or romantic partners, for example.
The smartphones offer a chance to minimize some of the drawbacks of self-reported data, Shackman said. Since the subjects are reporting in the moment, hour-by-hour, they won’t have to remember and report what they were doing and feeling at a given moment after the fact, he said.
In future studies, Shackman says the GPS and other sensors smartphones could be used to even further reduce the burden on study participants, collecting data on their movements, where they spend their time and even their vital signs without requiring a response — but that’s beyond this project, he said.
Smartphone-based research has some built-in limitations: namely, while the Android platform is open-source and allows researchers to easily create and distribute apps to help their studies, Apple’s operating system is proprietary, and the iTunes App Store is curated, making it less convenient to conduct iPhone-based research, Shackman said.
The UMD study has sidestepped this problem by making its reporting platform web-based and accessible from any device, he said.
The $3.4 million grant comes from the National Institutes of Mental Health.