Headspace invites outside researchers to study cognitive effects of mindfulness apps

Headspace Health today put out an open call for third-party researchers looking to study the cognitive impacts of its meditation and mindfulness app through its new external research collaborator program.

Headspace has previously participated in 40 published papers and studies with 51 currently in progress. The announcement reflects a more concerted effort to expand third-party research collaborations that could further prove the application’s efficacy while also leading to a broader understanding of the cognitive effects of the mindfulness app, company executives said.

“Through this program, we hope to empower researchers to conduct high-quality studies that demonstrate the impact of a leading digital mindfulness solution on various mental health and well-being outcomes in diverse populations on a global scale,” wrote Lauren Lee, Ph.D., vice president of clinical product and content development at Headspace Health, in an email to Fierce Healthcare. “To date, digital health companies have primarily published research on the efficacy and effectiveness of their products and solutions, but more is warranted to better understand mechanisms, generalizability and gaps in current solutions.”

All studies must be approved by institutional review boards prior to Headspace supporting the study or access to Headspace is granted. Participant consent is also emphasized by the app to be of the utmost importance. 

Previous research has revealed that 32% of Headspace app users felt a decrease in stress after 30 days of use, 29% showed a decrease in depressive symptoms and 22% showed an increase in focus after just one session.

Alone, the Headspace app boasts 70 million users globally with 2 million subscribers with access to premium features. More than 2,000 businesses have partnered with the app to offer access to employees free of charge. Following a merger with teletherapy provider Ginger, the duo created Headspace Health and reached 100 million consumers, according to the company, which has been valued at $3 billion.

Expanding bodies of research would enable Headspace Health to identify gaps in how it meets the needs of various user communities, according to the company.

“In the past few years, we have seen a surge in the adoption of telehealth and digital health tools for various conditions and needs,” Lee wrote. “Headspace Health holds itself accountable for delivering the greatest impact and best possible outcomes through our offerings, and we dive deeper to understand what’s working, for whom, and how we might amplify our impact.”

With a wide consumer base reflecting global users, the potential for cognitive investigation are substantial, as reflected by previous research using application data.

A study published on the American Psychology Association’s website PsycNet studied the use of smartphone apps like Headspace to decrease blood pressure and overall work-related stress. The Headspace app was chosen by the research team due to its “functionality and user-friendly design.”

In the U.S., 5–8 percent of annual healthcare costs are estimated to be related to work stressors, according to the study. The research measured participants for 16 weeks of usage and found that short, guided mindfulness meditations delivered via smartphones multiple times a week improved outcomes related to work stress and well-being.

“We hope to see and highly encourage research proposals that incorporate objective measurements of mental health-related outcomes and explore the mediational and mechanistic factors associated with those outcomes,” Headspace's Lee wrote to Fierce Healthcare. “Other gaps that we have identified in the literature include the impact of Headspace on diverse populations, including those in underserved communities, clinical populations and young adults.”

While much of the research conducted in connection with Headspace has focused broadly on users, healthcare settings have also been a pointed focus. A 2018 study measured the effectiveness of the app when used by cancer patients and their informal caregivers. The results showed a reduction in stress and improved quality of life. Users highlighted an appreciation for the accessibility of an app as opposed to in-person therapy.

Another study offered the app to novice nurses in pediatric nurse residency programs. As compared to a group receiving “traditionally delivered mindfulness intervention,” those using the app showed significantly higher rates of “acting with awareness” and marginally more compassion and satisfaction and less burnout.

“We want to encourage others in the digital mental health space, and those in the digital health industry more broadly, to critically evaluate how an investment in research can accelerate the completion of more studies to better understand how digital solutions are moving the needle in users’ behavioral health and outcomes,” Lee wrote.

Clinical research conducted via digital health companies is embroiled in larger conversations about data privacy and health data privacy in particular. Along with concerns about using data without users' understanding are fears that research currently reflects bias, lacks validity or is based on skewed or small sample sizes.

“To support our members and study participants in making this decision, we strive to be transparent about how this data is used, who has access to it, and our, as well as our collaborators, adherence to proper de-identification of the data,” Lee wrote. “Trust and research ethics is paramount, and thus, we mandate that any organization conducting research with Headspace will ensure that the participants in their study have acknowledged that their data related to the usage of Headspace will be collected and analyzed by the research institution.”

Concerns about health data privacy have increased with a specific focus on women's health and period tracking apps. In response to the overturning of federal protections for abortions, senators have called for the expansion of HIPAA regulations to ensure digital health privacy. At the same time, the American Digital Privacy Protections Act was introduced in Congress this summer. If passed, it would be the first comprehensive federal data privacy law.