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Identifying depression in early adolescence (IDEA) – Expert Q&A

We speak to Dr Valeria Mondelli, the researcher leading IDEA – the MQ project which aims to identify which young people are most at risk of depression

What got you into research? 

When I was younger and still a medical student, my mum was suffering with terminal breast cancer and at the time we were trying to find any possible alternative treatment that could have helped. This inspired me to go into medical research and to help finding new ways to further improve the treatment and clinical care of patients who were left without hope for their future life. I chose to dedicate my time particularly to psychiatry because I was fascinated by how the minds works and because it’s an area where we know even less than other fields. 

My research focus was initially on hormones and the impact they have on our behaviours. The brain is very difficult to study, but hormones give us a window to understand how it works. I then became more and more interested in stress hormones and the development of mental health problems. Initially, I looked at the link between stress and the onset of psychosis. I’ve since widened my field to look at the integration between physical and mental health, not only in psychosis, but also in depression.    

You’re leading the MQ IDEA project – can you tell me about what it involves?

IDEA stands for Identifying Depression in Early Adolescence. This is a very important project because we don’t have a tool to understand who is going to develop depression later on – and this research could provide the answers.

We’re focusing on early adolescence because depression usually develops during this phase and often continues throughout a whole lifetime. So if we can intervene early we could save a lot of suffering. 

We’re bringing together a range of expertise from different researchers working in different fields to try to understand how we can predict depression better.

To begin with, we’re going to look at all the previous research that has already been published in this area so we have a good understanding of the findings already out there.

Next, we’re looking at data from children who have been followed up throughout childhood to adolescence. We’re analysing cohorts from different countries – Nigeria, Nepal, Brazil and the UK. This will enable us to identify some of the social, family environment and psychological factors that impact the development of depression.

The next step is to integrate the biological part – so with a new cohort we will collect blood and saliva samples and look at scans of the brain – and link this new data, to look at the biological factors at play. 

All this research will be pooled together so we can create a screening tool to assess young people most at risk of depression. The final stage of the project to understand how we can integrate this tool into services in different countries, be that schools, GP practices or healthcare providers. If this tool is effective it could help us establish which young people are most at risk of depression so we can intervene early, provide support and potentially prevent them from a lifetime of depression.

Why is this new?

There are two main reasons why this project excites me and is offering something new. One, is because we’re putting together different expertise from different fields. This makes the project very strong because we have biological, immunological, neuroscience, anthropological and epidemiological expertise. In the past, we’ve looked at only biological factors, or only social factors, for example – but have never merged these areas together. In other fields of medicine, this is already happening, for example, for cardiovascular disease, you would not only take into account family history but you would look at family history plus blood samples and blood pressure. The idea is to create something like this for depression.

The other thing, which I think is really important, is the global approach. We have researchers from Nepal, Nigeria, the USA and the UK and we are looking at different datasets in different parts of the world. This means that we’ll create something that is good, not only for subjects living in wealthy countries, but for people who are living in lower-middle income countries too.

What are your ultimate ambitions for the project? How could it transform lives?

In the very long-term, we want to be able to identify the individuals who are at risk of depression and support them to reduce the incidence of depression in young people. Ultimately, we want to give young people the best start in life so they can thrive and reach their full potential.

Last updated: 17 October 2017

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