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5 ways research is tackling depression

Right now, one in ten people experience depression in the UK.

But while millions turn to their doctor each year, many have to try several different treatments before they find something that works for them. This trial and error approach means they could endure months of uncertainty and little improvement – impacting on their wellbeing, relationships and ability to work.  

From identifying risk factors for depression and personalising treatment, to developing techniques to prevent symptoms of the condition, these five projects have the potential to transform the lives of those living with depression. 

1. Predicting the effectiveness of antidepressants

Imagine if we could accurately predict which types of antidepressant would work best for different people?

Dr Claire Gillan is creating an internet-based tool which could make sure the right treatments are reaching the right patients. By collecting data from people who are new to antidepressants, Claire will create an algorithm to estimate how well people with certain characteristics will respond to specific treatments. This could enable people experiencing depression to get better faster - and help health services radically reduce the amount spent on ineffective treatments.

2. Finding out if training people’s attention can decrease symptoms of depression

Research has shown links between attention and depression. When attention keeps coming back to negative thoughts it can cause negative mood - making it harder for people to control their emotions.

Ernst Koster wants to see if eye-tracking technology can help improve the attention span of people with depression and ultimately decrease symptoms of the condition by helping people to manage their emotions. This type of treatment could be made available online – with the potential to help fight depression all over the world.

3. Exploring which factors put young people at risk of depression

For the majority of people depression starts early in life – but we still lack the ability to predict which young people are most likely to be affected.

Dr Valeria Mondelli is analysing data on a number of factors - including social and family environment, stressful experiences, brain images and biology - from young people across the UK, Brazil, Nigeria and Nepal. Through this unique worldwide perspective, she hopes to identify both universal and context-specific risk factors for depression in young people. This could create a tool to screen young people for depression, which could ultimately become part of global health services.

4. Predicting which psychological therapy would work for someone

Psychological therapies like cognitive behaviour therapy and exposure therapy are proven to be effective treatments for depression. In the UK, these are provided through the NHS’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme - which initially gives people low intensity treatment, moving to higher intensity interventions if they don’t respond well. But right now, 40% of people in IAPT don’t see an improvement.

Dr Rob DeRubeis and Zachary Cohen want to create an algorithm to predict whether someone will benefit most from a low or high intensity treatment. This could be rolled out across IAPT services UK-wide, enabling clinicians to accurately recommend which treatments will work for which people – so more people can receive the help they need and get better faster.

5. Exploring how chemicals in the brain affect mood

Serotonin is widely associated with changes in mood – in fact, many antidepressants work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain. But our understanding of how the chemical is involved in conditions like depression at a cellular level remains limited.

Dr Jeremih Cohen is using cutting-edge techniques to investigate the role of serotonin within the brain – specifically, how it’s released during certain tasks, how it acts in different parts of the brain and how it affects emotional behaviour. This information could lay the foundation for more selective use of current antidepressants and for a new generation of better treatments.

Over the last 30 years we’ve seen incredible advances in treatments for so many physical health conditions - from HIV to cancer to haemophilia. Projects like these could uncover breakthrough findings about depression – with the potential to identify more effective treatments and prevent depression from having a lifelong impact. 

Last updated: 1 August 2018

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