New app could screen for autism, PTSD, or brain injuries

Duke University, with sponsorship by the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research, is developing a smartphone app to learn more about childhood autism and even screen for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury.

In a press release, the Navy notes that the app, called “Autism & Beyond,” is “available for free download from the Apple App Store to families wishing to participate in a six-month medical research study by Duke University.”

Using the smartphone’s user-facing “selfie” camera, the app records a child’s facial expressions in response to a series of questionnaires and videos designed to get him or her to smile, laugh, or be surprised. The app’s core algorithm maps key points on the child’s face to assess emotional responses.

“We analyze the video to track position and movement of the head and face, including the lips, eyes and nose—all of which indicate emotions,” Guillermo Sapiro, a professor at Duke University who developed the algorithm, said in a statement. “For example, while watching stimuli like a funny video, does the child smile, look toward the caregiver or ask the caregiver to view the video as well? We study all of that. Lack of emotion and social sharing are possible characteristics of childhood autism.”

Sapiro hopes to expand the autism study to tailor apps for warfighter-related conditions such as PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and depression.