News Release

Smartphone technology expected to advance assessment of neurological soft signs in schizophrenia

Objective measurement could improve patient management and aid research into how distinct groups of signs might reflect different aspects of psychiatric illness and neurologic impairment

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Wolters Kluwer Health

September 12, 2023Since the 1980s, we have known that neurological soft signs (NSS) can distinguish people with schizophrenia from psychiatrically healthy individuals. NSS are subtle neurological impairments that principally manifest as decreased sensory integration (trouble receiving and responding to information transmitted to the brain through the senses) and difficulties with balance, rapid successive movements, and right–left orientation. 

NSS doesn't always cause impairment of daily living, but identifying them could improve the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia and enhance understanding of the disease itself. Unfortunately, barriers to assessment have persisted for more than 40 years—rating systems for NSS are subjective, so it's difficult to reliably measure and compare deficits. 

In a perspectives article published in Harvard Review of Psychiatry (HRP), part of the Lippincott portfolio from Wolters Kluwer, John Torous, MD, MBI and colleagues of Harvard's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, discuss how smartphone sensing technology could be used to create standardized NSS assessments. 

Advances in smartphones and digital phenotyping offer a means for more reliable scoring 

In 2016, Dr. Torous and his colleagues were the first to define "digital phenotyping," the use of data from smart devices to identify behavior patterns that can detect disease. In the case of NSS, physicians can collect information from a smartphone's motion sensors, like those that adjust the screen display from portrait to landscape and react to gaming-related gestures, to detect behavior patterns as possible NSS markers. For example: 

  • A test of balance: Patients stand with their arms held parallel to the floor and their eyes closed for one minute; patients could perform the same test with a smartphone attached to their sternums. 

  • A test of motor coordination (like the tandem walk): Patients walk heel-to-toe in a straight line for 12 feet; the same test has been administered to patients with Parkinson's disease by having them put a smartphone in their pants pockets. 

  • A test of complex motor acts: Ask the patient to reproduce a series of audible taps; alternatively, the smartphone could play a beat with the patient tapping along, and the patient could be asked to continue tapping the same pattern after the beat stops. 

Smartphones and digital phenotyping have multiple advantages over traditional assessment 

A smartphone makes objective measurements so it can quantitatively evaluate how well a patient does on a test rather than have the examiner decide whether the patient is impaired. In addition, using smartphones for NSS measurement could reduce the time necessary for neurological office visits since patients could complete aspects of the examination before or after a visit. 

"Incorporating digital phenotyping into NSS assessment offers the potential to make measurement more scalable, accessible, and directly comparable across locations, cultures, and demographics," Dr. Torous and his colleagues note. Some tests may require use of a camera, but with proper security and privacy features in place the data could be safely employed.  

"The rapid adoption of telehealth measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic increased patient buy-in and enhanced privacy considerations, making it an advantageous time to introduce smartphone sensing technology and tools to measure NSS," the authors conclude. 

Read Article [Potential Role of Smartphone Technology in Advancing Work on Neurological Soft Signs with a Focus on Schizophrenia] 

Wolters Kluwer provides trusted clinical technology and evidence-based solutions that engage clinicians, patients, researchers, and students in effective decision-making and outcomes across health care. We support clinical effectiveness, learning and research, clinical surveillance and compliance, as well as data solutions. For more information about our solutions, visit and follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter @WKHealth


About HRP 

Harvard Review of Psychiatry is the authoritative source for scholarly reviews and perspectives on a diverse range of important topics in psychiatry. Founded by the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry, the journal is peer-reviewed and not industry sponsored. It is the property of President and Fellows of Harvard College and is affiliated with all of the departments of psychiatry at the Harvard teaching hospitals. Articles encompass all major issues in contemporary psychiatry, including (but not limited to) neuroscience, psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, history of psychiatry, and ethics. 

In addition to scholarly reviews, perspectives articles, and columns, the journal includes a clinical challenge section that presents a case followed by discussion and debate from a panel of experts. 

About Wolters Kluwer  

Wolters Kluwer (EURONEXT: WKL) is a global leader in professional information, software solutions, and services for the health care, tax and accounting, financial and corporate compliance, legal and regulatory, and corporate performance and ESG sectors. We help our customers make critical decisions every day by providing expert solutions that combine deep domain knowledge with specialized technology and services.  

Wolters Kluwer reported 2022 annual revenues of €5.5 billion. The group serves customers in over 180 countries, maintains operations in over 40 countries, and employs approximately 20,000 people worldwide. The company is headquartered in Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands. 

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.