New study to probe machine learning role in treating depression


In one of the first studies of its kind, a machine learning approach will be used to determine optimal treatments for patients suffering from depression, especially in the Indian context. If successful, this technological tool can then be used in low and middle-income countries too.

The US National Institute of Mental Health-funded study will be a collaborative effort between Sangath, a 26-year-old mental health research organisation based in Goa with regional hubs in Pune, Bhopal and New Delhi, and AIIMS Bhopal.

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Dr Vikram Patel from Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Sangath said that this precision medicine approach for treating depression will also examine whether polygenic risk scores can predict response to either anti-depressant medication or psychological counselling. “It is a four-year project and will be implemented closely with AIIMS Bhopal. The study will have a sample size of 1,500 patients,” he said. He and Dr Steve Hollon from Vanderbilt University will lead the study as project investigators.

The machine learning approach will take into consideration various data points like specific genetic factors, family information, medical and clinical history that will predict treatment outcomes in patients with depression. The research study is based on the assumption that using a machine learning approach to select the optimal treatment for each individual patient will prove to be more effective than leaving things to chance.

Depression is a major contributor to the global disease burden. Recently, WHO chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan tweeted that one billion people live with a mental health disorder. Suicide accounts for one in 100 deaths, specially among adolescents. “Still the government spends two per cent of health budgets on mental health care. At WHO, the pandemic has sparked a push for global mental health transformation,” Dr Swaminathan tweeted.

Study researchers said, “In the case of moderate to severe depression, a patient is either offered medicines (antidepressant medication) or counselling or both. However, which is the right treatment for each patient is a difficult decision to make and the protocol involves trying out various alternatives. The research study aims to improve the outcomes of treatment for patients with depression by personalising the treatment options.”

The study is being conducted in collaboration with the National Health Mission, Madhya Pradesh, the Madhya Pradesh health department and AIIMS Bhopal for improving depression care in low-resource, primary healthcare settings.





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