Background: In complex systems early warning signals such as rising autocorrelation, variance and network connectivity are hypothesized to anticipate relevant shifts in a system. For direct evidence hereof in depression, designs are needed in which early warning signals and symptom transitions are prospectively assessed within an individual. Therefore, this study aimed to detect personalized early warning signals preceding the occurrence of a major symptom transition.
Methods: Six single-subject time-series studies were conducted, collecting frequent observations of momentary affective states during a time-period when participants were at increased risk of a symptom transition. Momentary affect states were reported three times a day over three to six months (95-183 days). Depressive symptoms were measured weekly using the Symptom CheckList-90. Presence of sudden symptom transitions was assessed using change point analysis. Early warning signals were analysed using moving window techniques.
Results: As change point analysis revealed a significant and sudden symptom transition in one participant in the studied period, early warning signals were examined in this person. Autocorrelation (r=0·51; p<2.2e-16), and variance (r=0·53; p<2.2e-16) in 'feeling down', and network connectivity (r=0·42; p<2.2e-16) significantly increased a month before this transition occurred. These early warnings also preceded the rise in absolute levels of 'feeling down' and the participant's personal indication of risk for transition.
Conclusions: This study replicated the findings of a previous study and confirmed the presence of rising early warning signals a month before the symptom transition occurred. Results show the potential of early warning signals to improve personalized risk assessment in the field of psychiatry.