Google's sister firm X works to watch despair utilizing electrical alerts from the mind


A prototype from Project Amber of an EEG headset.


Alphabet's experimental research group, X, has been quietly working on an experimental project to monitor symptoms of depression.

A blog post published on Monday describes how a team of neuroscientists, hardware and software engineers, and product experts have been working on a series of prototypes under the name "Project Amber" for the past three years. The goal is to find a more objective way of monitoring symptoms of depression.

Almost half of the 60 million people living with mental illness in the United States are being deprived of any treatment because of high costs and inadequate medical care, and technology companies see a way to help. Venture-backed companies like Mindstrong and Ginger have raised millions of dollars in funding to use a variety of methods, including monitoring user interaction with a smartphone keypad to gain insight into their mental health.

Obi Felten, director of the X lab, wrote that Alphabet relies on a technology known as electroencephalography [EEG] that measures the patterns of electrical activity in the brain. The company has developed new brain monitoring hardware that resembles a multi-colored swim cap, as well as tools to analyze the data.

The company plans to make the technology available to the wider mental health community by releasing the code behind its hardware and software designs.

Using the EEG to monitor brain activity is not a new idea. Many research laboratories around the world are using the technology. But Felten wrote that Alphabet believes it can collect and interpret the data more easily.

The Amber Project initially focused on some type of test to diagnose depression and anxiety, but moved away from it after hearing that clinicians didn't really need such a tool. Instead, the group focuses on using the technology for "continuous monitoring," that is, tracking how a patient is doing between visits and even predicting a future episode of depression.

Still, that might not open up the root of the problem, suggests Russell Glass, CEO of Ginger. Ginger began developing tools to diagnose mental illness, but has since focused on providing affordable online access to mental health therapists and trainers for its users.

"Mental health measurement is important to some extent, and we should be using data," Glass said over the phone. "But it's less about measurement and more about access to care."

Glass said that even if there are better tools on the market to diagnose and monitor mental illness, it doesn't necessarily mean patients are getting the treatment they need. In the US and many other countries, the shortage of mental health professionals is an escalating crisis.

Currently, the device is purely experimental and has not been approved for clinical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Alphabet said it would publish a report soon with more research.

Read more about the effort here.


Katherine Clark