Researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have created a therapeutic software that provides an option for treating depression that does not rely on drugs. They say it’s a good example of how hospitals can help advance the development of digital health care tools.

Individuals with major depressive disorder have trouble processing and controlling their emotions. The software app, called Emotional Faces Memory Task, asks patients to identify an emotion displayed on a series of faces. They are then asked to identify the number of faces shown earlier in the series that displayed the same emotion. The goal is to balance brain activity and reduce abnormal thinking in patients with depression.

The exercise targets the thinking abnormality seen in patients with major depressive disorder, such as perseverating, obsessing and dwelling on the negative, by activating emotion processing and cognitive control at the same time. That way higher cognitive control regions in the brain will stay active even while the brain is processing emotional stimuli, giving the patient the capacity to shift his attention from the negative.

In a clinical trial, the program reduced major depressive disorder symptoms by 42 percent in the experimental group after six weeks, compared with just 15.7 percent in the control group. Those results are comparable to drug therapy.

“We need new and better ways to treat depression,” says Brian Iacoviello, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai, director of scientific affairs for Click Therapeutics and one of the developers of the technology. “This research is novel because it’s not just about cognition, it’s more about cognition for emotionally salient information. People get stuck on negative thoughts.”

Mount Sinai Innovation Partners, the innovation arm of Mount Sinai, has now partnered with Click Therapeutics to develop the software further and bring it to market, according to Erik Lium, senior vice president of MSIP.

Iacoviello says the software could be useful for hospitals in a number of ways. “For a lot of folks, psychotherapy is expensive and a big time commitment. It’s good to have another option that is not medication,” he says. And, because the technique is digital, it can be easily accessed in homes and other settings.

David Klein, CEO of Click Therapeutics, says it is the first digital tool to treat mild to moderate depression. But its not limited to treating depression. “Digital therapeutics can help treat people for other situations, such as smoking, insomnia or cardio conditions,” he says.

The new software also highlights the importance of hospitals fostering research around new clinical tools, particularly digital ones, according to the developers. “Investing in innovation is as critical as investing in the infrastructure to support it,” Lium says.