Precision health for mental health

Members of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute (NMHI) apply artificial intelligence to examine genetic, lifestyle and imaging data for more precise mental illness prevention, detection and intervention.

Salena Kitteringham - 16 September 2019

Bo Cao leads a University of Alberta computational psychiatry lab in NMHI. In one study, his team used a machine learning algorithm to examine functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images, which helped identify with 78- per- cent accuracy patients with first-episode schizophrenia. It also predicted with 82-per-cent accuracy whether or not a patient would respond positively to the antipsychotic treatment risperidone.

Ultimately, the hope is to use machine learning to predict psychiatric disorders before the symptoms show up and to optimize treatment plans for each individual patient.

"It will be a joint effort of the patients, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, computer scientists and researchers in other disciplines to build better tools for precise mental health," said Cao.

Katherine Aitchison leads the Precision Mental Health and Addictions Lab in NMHI. Her team is collaborating with Scot Purdon, Phil Tibbo and Gina Macintyre to shed light on genetic and environmental factors that may trigger the onset of psychotic illness.

Another major focus of the Aitchison lab is sorting out reliable methods for identifying and reporting on genetic variants associated with tolerability and efficacy of medications used to treat mental health conditions. Together with Chad Bousman at the University of Calgary and others including Stacey Hume from the Alberta Health Services Molecular Diagnostics Lab, an Alberta Innovates Strategic Research Project is working to generate a method to be made available for prescribers to order through Alberta Health Services.

Her team also aims to identify differences in genetics that are associated with addictions and related behaviors and uses mobile health (mHealth) to better understand suicidal ideation, leading to appropriate preventive measures and recommendations that can enhance resiliency in the face of trauma. Funding for these streams of work includes the American Foundation for Addiction Research and a Fellowship grant to a trainee from Janssen Inc., Canada.

"Our work is to empower those with lived experience―patients and their caregivers―in shared decision-making with their health-care providers," Aitchison said.

In 2018, the Edmonton Early Psychosis Clinic with Aitchison as the Lead Psychiatrist was honoured to receive an Alberta Health Services President's Excellence Award in the Outstanding Achievements in Patient and Family-Centred Care category.