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$10M Investment from Cincinnati Children’s Launches Ambitious Mental Health Mission

Imagine a day when a mental health expert could take a look at data about a classroom of first graders and identify who is at risk for suicidal behavior as a high schooler.

Imagine a health care system that enables the people who care about those children to take action early enough to prevent such a tragedy from occurring.

That’s the ultimate goal of the bold new mental health “trajectories” project, announced Nov. 8, 2021,  by leaders at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, one of the world’s leading pediatric research, care and training centers. It’s a massive task that will involve more than 25 leading scientists at nine different research divisions within Cincinnati Children’s as well as collaborators at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Colorado and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“We are seeking to show the likelihood of an individual developing serious mental illness over time. This is much like the lines of a pediatric growth chart that predict a person’s height or weight. However, these mental health trajectories are far more complex,” says Tracy Glauser, MD, Associate Director of the Cincinnati Children’s Research Foundation and one of two principal investigators for the project.

The team plans to assemble large amounts of data from many sources that investigators already know play at least some role in influencing the mental health of a growing child. Such information includes personal medical records, genomic information, environmental exposures, economic disruption, housing conditions, traumas experienced by parents, family dysfunctions, substance abuse, experiencing bullying, surviving disasters, systemic racism and more.

“Before we can cure and prevent, we have to understand the real origins of mental illness, especially the roles of biological, thought, and environment factors. Together these components are very, very complex and can only be understood with the help of the world’s most powerful computers.” says John Pestian, PhD, MBA, an expert in building neuropsychiatric artificial intelligence algorithms and co-principal investigator for the project.

One such powerful supercomputer, dubbed Summit and currently the nation’s fastest, is located at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy national laboratory in Tennessee managed by UT-Battelle, LLC. In part to advance this work, Pestian holds dual appointments at Cincinnati Children’s and ORNL.

“We are excited to leverage ORNL’s world-class leadership computing capabilities to impact the future of pediatric mental health,” says ORNL principal investigator Greeshma Agasthya. “Improving mental health outcomes is a major challenge, and we are dedicated to using our expertise to capitalize on the wealth of information available in health records, medical notes, and medical images, while ensuring the privacy of the data.”

Anuj Kapadia, ORNL’s Section Head for Advanced Computing for Health Sciences, adds: “This collaboration, which is actively guided by clinician and pediatric mental health experts at Cincinnati Children’s, will be a step towards better mental health outcomes for our children.”

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