Diagnosing mental health disorders using facial scans

BOSTON — It's cutting-edge technology that identifies mental health disorders by scanning facial expressions.

The hope is that it could eventually be used in doctor's offices, emergency rooms, and by first responders.

Dr. Justin Baker is assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He leads a team at McLean Hospital in Belmont that’s developing technology using facial recognition to help identify psychological disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia.

"Even a well-trained doctor isn't necessarily going to have eyes and ears that would pick-up on kind of subtle changes a computer might pick-up on" said Baker.

Web camera's pickup up reactions from different areas on the face while a computer analyzes the data.  It's information not always detectable by the trained eye.

"Maybe we're missing a sign or symptom not obvious to us and that it might be pulled from an analysis of this data" said Dr. Elizabeth Liebson, a psychiatrist working on the project.

Wearing headsets, Liebson asks the patient a specific list of questions. In this demonstration, it’s a member of the research team acting as the patient.  As they go through the list of questions, the cameras are analyzing different points on the face of the patient. It’s tracking how much the mouth is smiling or frowning.  It’s also focusing on how the head is positioned and the percentage it turns.  The program is learning the different nuances from each participant and collecting that information to identify traits of mental health disorders.  This data combined with an assessment from the doctor is used to give a more thorough and detailed diagnosis of the patient.

"We’re trying to capture what experienced clinicians are able to pick up on in terms of body language, facial expressions. The words they use, the way they say those words" said Baker.

The next step is to shrink down the computer program so it can be used in a smart phone application.  Dr. Baker believes the technology could be used by first responders and in the ER, particularly if someone doesn't have a lot of mental health training.

"They can turn this recorder on and then these vital signs could be beamed back to some place where an expert can be looking at the data in real time" Baker said.

The research team at McLean hopes to launch the technology late in the fall.