Penn-developed Method for Selecting Mental Health Treatments Receives $160,000 Award

MQ: Transforming Mental Health, a new United Kingdom-based charitable organization that supports mental health research, announced Wednesday the first major investment of its new flagship research program, PsyIMPACT. A team of University of Pennsylvania researchers is among the four awardees and will receive £99,900, or about $160,000, over two years in support of their work developing decision-making tools that help match mental health patients with the most effective treatments.

The research team is led by Robert DeRubeis, professor in the Department of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, and Zachary Cohen, a doctoral candidate there. They have developed the “Personalized Advantage Index,” a way of systematically comparing and weighing the multiple variables that influence what type of treatment is most likely to work for a given patient.

In a study published earlier this year, they tested their model on data from a separate study of patients seeking treatment for depression; the patients received either cognitive behavioral therapy or medication. By using the model to generate a score for each patient that indicated which treatment was likely to be more individually effective, researchers showed an advantage equivalent to that of an effective treatment relative to a placebo.       

“Although a variety of effective psychological and pharmacological treatments exist for mental health disorders, a substantial minority of patients who receive treatment do not respond,” DeRubeis said. “Several factors have been identified that indicate better or worse outcome to one treatment compared to another. These factors could be used to inform treatment decisions, but, unfortunately, no framework currently exists that allows for this information to be translated into clear, actionable recommendations for specific individuals.”

“When many such variables exist,” Cohen said, “and when a patient's values on the variables leads to conflicting recommendations, then making treatment decisions based on these variables becomes difficult. Statistical models that simultaneously consider the relative importance of multiple variables, like our approach, can help identify which treatments work for whom.” 

The PsyIMPACT award will help support further investigation and collaborations to explore the technique’s effectiveness in directing treatment for anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and childhood OCD. It will also support the development of computer-based tools for helping make such decisions in clinical settings.

PsyIMPACT was developed following a major international meeting last year to channel scientific advances, including new computer-based approaches, to tackle the major access and treatment challenges in psychological therapies.

“Psychological treatments help so many people,” said Cynthia Joyce, chief executive of MQ: Transforming Mental Health, “and we know that they have the potential to benefit many more. Our PsyIMPACT awards are developing effective tools, opportunities to better target therapies and brand new interventions in areas where current treatments are limited.”

Other projects funded through the £1.5 million in awards are based at Kings College, London; Birkbeck, University of London; and Oxford University. The projects include innovative ways of providing more effective and accessible psychological treatments for common mental disorders, such as anxiety, depression and ADHD.

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