Researchers believe they can diagnose depression by looking at Instagram photos

It may seem that everyone on Instagram is living their best life, but according to new research photos that are bluer, darker, and less populated might reveal a struggle with mental health.

Researchers from the University of Vermont and Harvard University, have found that they could diagnose depression by using machine learning to study the composition of Instagram photos.

According to the researchers, photos that are bluer, more gray, dark or with fewer faces indicate that the profile’s owner has depressive tendencies.

The computer’s detection rate of 70% is more reliable than the 42% success rate of general-practice doctors diagnosing depression in-person.

“This points toward a new method for early screening of depression and other emerging mental illnesses,” says Chris Danforth, a professor at the University of Vermont who co-led the new study. “This algorithm can sometimes detect depression before a clinical diagnosis is made.”

“So much is encoded in our digital footprint. Clever artificial intelligence will be able to find signals, especially for something like mental illness.”

Featured image courtesy of Ink Drop / Shutterstock.com.

To conduct the study, the researchers used the Instagram feeds of 166 people, around half of whom had reported having been clinically depressed in the last three years.

The researchers then collected and analysed 43,950 photos, using insights from well-established psychology research, about people’s preferences for brightness, colour, and shading. They also investigated the filters used by healthy and mentally ill people.

They found that healthy individual chose Instagram filters, like Valencia, that gave their photos a warmer brighter tone. Among depressed people the most popular filter was Inkwell, making the photo black-and-white.

Faces in photos also turned out to provide signals about depression. The researchers found that depressed people were more likely than healthy people to post a photo with people’s faces—but these photos had fewer faces on average than the healthy people’s Instagram feeds.

“People suffering from depression were more likely to favour a filter that literally drained all the colour out the images they wanted to share,” said Danforth and Andrew Reece of Harvard University who co-wrote the study.

“Fewer faces may be an oblique indicator that depressed users interact in smaller settings.”

Images courtesy of Reece and Danforth

More than half of a general practitioners’ depression diagnoses are false, but the computational algorithm was able to achieve a detection rate of 70%, while GPs are said to have only a 42% success rate.

The new study also shows that the computer model was able to detect signs of depression before a person’s date of diagnosis. “This could help you get to a doctor sooner,” Danforth says. “Or, imagine that you can go to doctor and push a button to let an algorithm read your social media history as part of the exam.”

Host of genetic research groups issue backing for inheritable human gene editing

A group of 11 organisations spanning five continents have issued a policy statement in support of current efforts to edit human germline genomes – that is, genes which passed down from parent to child.

The statement, published today in The American Journal of Human Genetics, said that the organisations support publicly funded in-vitro research into germline genome editing, which could eventually be used to eliminate devastating inherited diseases.

However, they stopped short of supporting research that would lead to a human pregnancy, arguing that at this stage it would be inappropriate to undertake.

“Our workgroup on genome editing included experts in several subfields of human genetics as well as from countries with varying health systems and research infrastructure,” said statement lead author Kelly E Ormond, professor of genetics at Stanford University.

“Given this diversity of perspective, we are encouraged by the agreement we were able to reach and hope it speaks to the soundness and wider acceptability of our recommendations.”

A depiction of the now widespread CRISPR-CAS9 gene editing complex, which enables DNA to be edited. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Ian Slaymaker, Broad Institute

Germline genome editing has only been even hypothetically possible very recently, with the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing tool in 2013. Allowing precise customisation of genes, it creates whole new possibilities for genetic research, particularly in humans.

However, while scientists feel confident of the technological and scientific prospects, the technology raises significant ethical issues, particularly in germline genomes, where any changes could have an impact for generations.

As a result, the scientists argue that there needs to be strong public discussion about the ethical issues, as well as clear rationale, evidence and ethical justifications for any future research in the area.

“While germline genome editing could theoretically be used to prevent a child being born with a genetic disease, its potential use also raises a multitude of scientific, ethical, and policy questions,” said Derek T Scholes, ASHG director of science policy. “These questions cannot all be answered by scientists alone, but also need to be debated by society.”

“As basic science research into genome editing progresses in the coming years, we urge stakeholders to have these important ethical and social discussions in tandem,” added Ormond.

Conventional two-stranded DNA

As a result, it is likely that we will see far more public discussion before the first gene-edited babies come anywhere close to being conceived.

The statement was authored by the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), the Association of Genetic Nurses and Counsellors, the Canadian Association of Genetic Counsellors, the International Genetic Epidemiology Society, and the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It was also endorsed by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the Asia Pacific Society of Human Genetics, the British Society for Genetic Medicine, the Human Genetics Society of Australasia, the Professional Society of Genetic Counselors in Asia and the Southern African Society for Human Genetics.