UBC's Dr. Raymond Lam to Deliver Keynote Address at Department of Psychiatry's Research Day Event May 15th

Renowned depression researcher Dr. Raymond Lam, Professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in Depression Research in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, will be the keynote speaker May 15th at the Department of Psychiatry's 18th annual Research Day event.

01 April 2019

Renowned depression researcher Dr. Raymond Lam, Professor and B.C. Leadership Chair in Depression Research in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, will be the keynote speaker May 15th at the Department of Psychiatry's 18th annual Research Day event.

The day-long symposium, which celebrates and showcases the research of the Department of Psychiatry's Residents and Graduate students, will take place at Bernard Snell Hall in University of Alberta Hospital.

"I'm very excited about Research Day. We have a lot of posters this year from different departments - about 35 in all. That's a big jump from last year, when we only had about 16 posters. And we'll probably have 15 to 20 students presenting in the thesis talks," says student organizer Daniela Gomez, whose Master's research is focused on neurocognitive changes in HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) patients.

"We'll have people from the Department of Educational Psychology, from Computing Science, the School of Public Health and the Faculty of Nursing. So it's going to be very interdisciplinary, offering different perspectives and different types of projects, from qualitative work to Machine Learning. That should stimulate some very interesting questions and conversations."

"It's hard to do anything in isolation now. You really need to take a team approach so you can get different perspectives," says Research Day organizer and Psychiatry Master's student Jessica Luki, whose research is focused on measuring the neurotransmitter levels in women with perimenopausal depression. Luki aims to recruit about 60 women for the study, including 30 healthy controls and 30 who are experiencing some symptoms of perimenopausal depression.

Jeff Sawalha, another Psychiatry Department Graduate student organizer, says he's particularly interested in learning more about current research projects in Machine Learning.

"It's good timing for this topic right now. Machine Learning has become a big buzzword and it has gotten a lot of media attention. But I think there are some misconceptions about the implications of Machine Learning, especially in the field of Psychiatry, and the fear that it's somehow going to replace the role of human clinicians," says Sawalha, whose PhD research is focused on using voice data analysis as a screening tool for military personnel and first-responders who may be at risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"We're trying to see if there are any predisposed biological markers in the voice data and other observational data that we'll collect to detect if someone may be at risk for it," he explains.

Dr. Lam, whose keynote address is titled Cognitive Dysfunction in Depression: Focus on Work Functioning, is Associate Head for Research and International Affairs in UBC's Department of Psychiatry, and Director of the Mood Disorders Centre Research, Education, Awareness and Care Hub (MDCreach) at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in Vancouver.

"My talk will mainly be about personalized medicine focusing on cognition as an important clinical dimension in people with depression," says Dr. Lam, whose extensive body of research encompasses clinical and neurobiological factors in seasonal, treatment-resistant and workplace depression, among other topics.

"We're recognizing now that cognitive symptoms and deficits are separate from, and in some ways independent from, the other symptoms of depression, and should be managed differently than other symptoms," he says.

Since individuals who suffer from depression often encounter difficulties with concentration, memory and executive functioning - or the ability to organize, multi-task and make decisions - this can have a major impact on their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, he notes.

"We used to think that the treatments typically used for depression, including antidepressant medications or psychotherapy, helped to improve all the symptoms of depression, including cognitive dysfunction. But now we're recognizing that doesn't always happen," he explains.

"In fact, even when other symptoms of depression improve, people may still be left with cognitive problems, and that might be one reason why they don't recover their functioning even if they're feeling better. When we talk about personalized medicine we're recognizing that the same treatment may not work for everyone, or work for all the depressive symptoms they have, and that's why we have to look at specific symptoms like cognition."

Since research shows there are differences in the brain structure of individuals who struggle with both depression and cognition - versus depression alone - new drugs are being developed to specifically target cognitive issues and depression.

One such medication is Vortioxetine. It's an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) with additional effects on serotonin receptors. It has helped some patients struggling with depression to improve their cognitive functioning, along with mood, sleep, appetite, and energy level.

"There are also new psychological treatments like cognitive training or cognitive remediation that seek to train people to improve memory, concentration and executive functioning with exercises often done on a computer. It's different from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is an evidence-based psychotherapy for depression but which may not address cognitive deficits. Cognitive training specifically looks at improving some of the cognitive problems that people have, and by doing that it also helps with other symptoms of depression," says Dr. Lam.

Since the University of Alberta is one of just two universities in Canada that offers a PhD program in Psychiatry - the other is McGill University in Montreal - the U of A Department of Psychiatry's annual Research Day takes on added national significance for all researchers in the field.

"Precision Medicine or Machine Learning in Psychiatry have been on the table for quite a few years but research in those fields has become more prominent," says Gomez.

"We also have amazing Computing Science and Machine Learning programs here at the U of A. In addition, Dr. Lam has a lot of connections here at the U of A so we figured he'd be a perfect keynote speaker for Research Day this year."