According to the National Institutes of Health, neuropsychiatric disorders are the foremost cause of disability among Americans, incurring even more disability claims than circulatory and cardiovascular diseases. Neuropsychiatric disorders encompass a wide range of conditions related to mental and behavioral health, as well as neurological disorders, though mental and behavioral illnesses are responsible for a greater number of disability-adjusted life years. The term refers to the number of years a patient loses to illness, disability or premature death. The National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates 20 percent of American adults experience a diagnosable mental illness each year, while the American Psychological Association (APA) notes around 45 percent of patients with one mental disorder also meet the criteria for one or more additional mental illnesses.
Mental health problems are a serious, rising issue in the United States, and the medical community is seeking better ways to identify and treat the people experiencing these complex conditions. Academics from some of the best American institutions of higher education believe Convergence in Healthcare may provide medical researchers with a way to successfully study, understand and treat neuropsychiatric disorders. Support for this idea is outlined in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-sponsored report “Convergence: The Future of Health.”
The current state of neuropsychiatric medicine
Before one can understand the revolutionary potential of Convergence in Healthcare in this field, one must first have a clear picture of mental health care in America. Data presented by the APA indicates primary care doctors aren’t able to identify even one-third of all cases of depression in patients where the condition could be diagnosed. Based on data from the National Health Expenditure Accounts, mental disorders in the U.S. cost the country $201 billion five years ago and the amount has only risen since then. Mental illness among Americans is also purported to cost the business sector more than $190 billion annually in lost earnings, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
More importantly, beyond the financial ramifications of mental health disorders, these conditions are the leading cause of suicide in America when left untreated. Apart from the cognitive and emotional effects of mental illness, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows mental illness also exacts a toll on patients’ physical health. People with mental illnesses experience higher occurrences of conditions such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. They also are likely to have co-occurring substance abuse disorders, which further erodes health and quality of life.
One of the best ways to improve understanding and treatment of mental illness in the U.S. is to better understand the brain, arguably the most complex and yet the least understood organ in the human body. Fortunately, Convergence in Healthcare is already demonstrating promise as a tool for this exact purpose.
The application of convergence in neuropsychiatric research
Recent convergent initiatives focused on the human brain may be an initial step toward better diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses. One of these recent convergent initiatives is the development of the CLARITY technique by scientists from Stanford University, who relied on concepts from both chemical engineering and neuroscience. CLARITY allows researchers to better study the molecular structures and fine wiring of the brain in three dimensions by using a polymer-based hydrogel to create an accurate, optically transparent model of the organ, which is then evaluated through light microscopy and chemical markers. A better understanding of brain wiring and structure through methods such as CLARITY may provide significant support to mental health researchers, who rely on these advances to better understand the deviations from normal brain function that characterize mental illness.
Another example of promising convergent research more directly linked to the study of mental illness is the pairing of genomic sequencing and data processing to detect genetic mutations in the brains of schizophrenia patients. Researchers from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are focused on these efforts. Convergent research led these teams to discover mutations linked to malfunctions during brain development, which may help scientists create future tools for the early diagnosis and treatment of the condition. Other convergent research has been conducted with the goal of predicting mental illness at an earlier stage. This includes technology that measures a single neuron’s voltage dynamics and correlates a patient’s behaviors with complex brain signals in an effort to predict the likelihood of mental illness development before the earliest symptoms present.
In the convergent discipline of computational psychiatry, scientists use machine learning to analyze the extremely complex and multi-dimensional data from patients with mental illness. Through Big Data techniques, psychiatric researchers are learning to identify new patterns in the data — even though many symptoms and causes are shared among multiple disorders, and patients with the same diagnosis may not all share the same symptoms. Without technology, this level of analysis of such large, varied data sets would not be possible.
Government support for convergent neuropsychiatric research
Beyond individual research projects, Convergence in Healthcare’s potential to advance studies of the brain and mental illness can be seen in the U.S. government’s investments in various projects. Established in 2013 during the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the BRAIN Initiative was launched with the specific purpose of vastly improving the medical community’s knowledge of the human brain to more effectively treat mental illness. With continued government support and the acceptance of Convergence in Healthcare as a model for the future of medical research, treatments for mental illness could vastly improve, changing the lives of millions of people around the country and the world.