What Can Computers Teach Us About Depression?

by Gabrielle DeMarco on December 16, 2010

Yes, she is truly working on five computers at one time.

Like many researchers on the leading edge of science, it is difficult to find an easy comparison for the type of research that Professor Joanne Luciano – the newest member of the Tetherless World Research Constellation - works on. Well-defined categories like “biotechnology” or “computer modeling” are close, but don’t entirely fit the bill. In many ways, Luciano’s research represents a new way to approach healthcare and technology. Her work uses the power of computation and the Web to answer extremely complex medical questions.

Here is ine of those questions, which Luciano has been investigating since early in her career: Why do different medical treatments impact individual patients in such dramatically different ways? More specifically, why do some people immediately respond to treatment of depression while others do not?

Doctors have found that all major market treatments for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) are more or less effective. But this statement can only be taken as true when looking at the overall results seen in thousands of patients. It takes very little consideration of the individual patient.

Here’s what Luciano said:

“When a person goes in for treatment of any illness, including depression, the treatment they receive has more to do with the training that their clinician has had than their specific illness …I felt that this was backward and that the process should be objective. With the current treatment processes, there is no way to determine who a specific treatment would be effective for.”

Luciano used computer algorithms to analyze and predict the individual clinical outcomes of different (pharmaceutical and physiological) treatments for MDD. Specifically, she looked at the order in which different symptoms of MDD improved in different patients.

Here’s what she found: While all the studied treatments were eventually effective, each treated different aspects of the illness at different times. This information provides doctors and patients with a wealth of knowledge on what type of treatment is best for the unique symptoms that a patient is exhibiting and provides an important timeline on their expected recovery. In the tragic case of someone committing suicide while on antidepressants, Luciano believes her research could provide important clues. For example, what if a given treatment improves a depressed individual’s energy before their cognition, actually giving them the energy to commit suicide?

The research, which Luciano has patented, offers doctors and their patients new tools in the effort to understand illness and its often unnecessarily complex treatment. It is all an exciting new example of how computers and the power of the World Wide Web can change the way we operate and live in our modern technological society.