Will A New Biomarker Technology Help Detecting Mental Diseases?

9 December 2021

Outside of the more direct influence COVID has had on public health, it’s been revealed that its secondary impacts of loneliness, stress and anxiety present significant and longer-term health challenges. Lockdowns and social distancing have contributed to a pandemic of such mental health disorders. Yet, despite adequate treatment being available to those seeking it, diagnosis has not previously been widely available.

That is, until the recent development of innovative solutions that leverage biological indicators for their diagnosis. Such devices, known as HRV biofeedback devices, measure heart rate variability (HRV) in order to teach their wearers how to create coherent oscillations in their heart rate alongside a greater insight into their mental health. If used effectively, this innovation could represent a seminal step forward in the early diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, which is timely when bearing in mind their proliferation after COVID-19 .

COVID’s Effect On Mental Health

As it seemingly has in almost every other facet of life, COVID-19 has been successful in spiralling this poor situation even further out of control. As a result of the extensive periods of deep lockdown, two important changes have occurred: a deterioration in work-life balance driven by a coalescence of the two, and an acceleration of the adoption of the sedentary, work-from-home future.

Both of these changes have resulted in significant negative effects for the state of the world’s mental health. For example, loneliness, which is more damaging to a person than smoking, obesity, and even increases the risk of early death, has surged amongst the UK population. Furthermore, this is an international phenomenon, with nearly 40% of the US population also reporting they feel seriously lonely.

The gravity of the situation was revealed by the World Health Organization (WHO) with its announcement that over 250 million people around the world have depression. Despite this, the availability of psychotherapy is only dwindling further, as waiting lists continue to fill up - and increase in length. It has been extremely challenging for anyone to get the help they need, especially in the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and its pressures on health services.

The New Approach

Recent scientific developments have shown the relevance of heart rate variability as a biomarker for an individual’s resilience in mental health. It is thought to be particularly reliable and accurate in measuring resilience as it is based on an objective, biological measurement as opposed to a subjective report.

Once the data is collected, the user receives a report on the state of the body and mental health, in addition to advice regarding how to increase his/her heart rate variability to help increase well-being, both emotionally and physically. Such solutions do not require wearables and the technology is available for anyone to access without queues or waiting times.

On balance, using heart rate variability as a biomarker for mental and physical well-being by technology is an innovative approach to the pre-existing problem of rising mental health issues. It alleviates the pressure on, for example, effective CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) methods of treatment which are inaccessible to many due to unprecedented demand. This revolution could not have arrived at a more timely moment, considering the effect COVID-19 had on the prevalence of mental health diseases.