Cincinnati Children’s doctors hopeful supercomputer can help decrease mental illness

CINCINNATI — Doctors at Cincinnati Children’s hope a supercomputer will hold the key to curing certain mental illnesses.

“Our goal is to cure depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation through early intervention,” said Dr. John Pestian, professor of pediatric, psychiatric and biomedical informatics.

For Pestian, medicine and technology go hand in hand. His idea for this recent research began when he and his colleagues were developing software that could predict and identify early signs of veteran suicides.

This new project would essentially create the mental health version of a growth chart that parents receive when they visit their child’s pediatrician. The data would come from the second fastest supercomputer in the world.

“We teach the computer what it looks like, and that’s called the training stage,” Pestian said. “We get all the data we want and clean it up, and then we put it into the computer and say, ‘This is what depression looks like.'”

The massive supercomputer called Summit is in Tennessee at the Oak Ridge National Lab. Experts are cramming the research to help them better predict a child’s mental health trajectory.

“Mental health is really complex,” Pestian said. “It’s not just the biology, but also the thoughts. And then there’s the environment.”

The computer takes all that data and learns about mental illness in a matter of hours, just a fraction of the time it would take a normal computer.

“If you try to do it on your desktop, it would take about 10 years,” Pestian said. “With supercomputers, we can calculate what we need in a couple of hours.”

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The CDC reports that one in six children is diagnosed with mental, behavioral or developmental disorders, but if all goes well with this research, Pestian says it could improve children’s lives for years to come.

“If we can identify it early and provide treatment, we can reduce adult mental illness by up to 50%,” Pestian said.

This project was funded through a $10 million grant from the Children’s Research Foundation of Cincinnati.

Pestian said his team is submitting research papers to be published in the coming weeks. He hopes to start a pilot program at Cincinnati Children’s late this year or the middle of next.

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