The U.S. Navy will be funding research for the development of a new autism screening app in the hopes that it could later be tweaked to detect signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How can an app distinguish signs of either autism or PTSD? The key is by detecting the person's facial expressions. The app, which is called Autism & Beyond, combines a smartphone camera and an algorithm that reads facial expressions among children. The emotional responses are then assessed.

The Navy has been working with Guillermo Sapiro, the computer scientist who developed the algorithm for the new app, for the past two decades. The Navy supports Sapiro's research on image processing and data analysis, and has invested hundreds of thousands in the app.

Application For PTSD Screening

PTSD is a disorder that often goes undiagnosed. It can occur after a person has gone through a very traumatic experience in which he or she would feel afraid or feel that no control over what is happening. Studies show that most PTSD patients may not recognize the link between symptoms and a traumatic event, or are not willing to talk about it.

Still, going through trauma does not automatically lead to PTSD, but members of the military are often not immune to it. In fact, research suggests that 10 to 18 percent of troops are likely to develop PTSD after they return.

In the recent years, about 46 percent of the 1 million troops from Afghanistan or Iraq came to the Veterans' Administration for care. According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, 48 percent of them were diagnosed with mental health problems.

An app to screen PTSD will indeed be helpful. Predrag Neskovic, project supervisor at the Office of Naval Research, believes the app could be expanded to PTSD to monitor people over time, especially if other aspects such as speech are taken into account.

"It can find patterns, not just in facial expressions but in different kinds of data sets, such as brain signals and speech, and it can be used on a continuous basis," said Neskovic. "It's a completely new world."

PTSD expert William Unger of Providence VA Medical Center said he sees potential for the app to be used to screen PTSD if it could be proven reliable for a large number of people over time.

Although the PTSD screening app is still far from being finished and available for use, Unger said he is very excited. He said the research may very well provide additional technological developments that would be greatly beneficial.

However, others are not as convinced. University of Memphis President M. David Rudd said he cannot see the app's extrapolation to PTSD.

Rudd, who is a PTSD and suicide prevention expert for military personnel, said the research extending to cover PTSD is "a pretty big gap to leap."

"It's the introduction of technology where technology is not particularly needed and not particularly useful," said Rudd. "As a society, this is what we do. It's kind of the medicalization of a problem that's emotional and interpersonal in nature. I just don't get it."

More About The App

The Autism & Beyond app shows funny videos that are designed to make children smile, laugh and express emotions. How their lips, eyes, head and nose move is recorded, encoded, and analyzed thru the camera and the algorithm. If the child is not responding to the stimuli, it is also recorded.

Sapiro, who is an electrical engineering professor at Duke University, said the app performs behavior analysis automatically, unlike a tool like WebMD, which requires the user to identify symptoms and asks questions.

But autism makes communication and the use of languages difficult, so the Autism & Beyond app is quite clever. Still, Sapiro emphasized that the app is not meant to replace specialists, but it is a pre-screening tool.

Autism can be associated with learning disabilities, intellectual difficulties, as well as problems with motor coordination and attention. It affects more than 3 million people in America and tens of millions all over the world. A previous study even revealed that people with autism die decades earlier than the general population.

Meanwhile, Sapiro and Neskovic envision developing a PTSD app within the next five years. They are also investigating whether it is possible to reveal signs of depression or mild traumatic brain injury.

Photo: Stuart Heath | Flickr

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