‘Early’ $2M grant cheers ambitious depression study

Only happy when it rains: Stony Brook University Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology Jessica Schleider is tackling teen depression, and the NIH has got her back.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A seven-digit federal grant will help a Stony Brook University researcher develop new treatment protocols for adolescents suffering from depression.

More than just “feeling sad” because it’s raining or the Mets were finally eliminated, clinical depression – a.k.a. major depressive disorder – is a common but serious condition with sometimes severe symptoms that affect how the afflicted feel, think, eat, sleep, work and otherwise function day-to-day.

And more than a healthcare nuisance, depression among teens is a bona fide mental-health scourge, with the National Institutes of Health counting 3.2 million U.S. adolescents with major depressive episodes annually.

Worse yet, many of those teenaged patients never access proper treatment – and “more than half fail to respond” when they do, according to SBU, where a groundbreaking effort to create better outcomes for adolescents with depression is underway.

Michael Bernstein: “Unique promise” in Schleider’s work.

Leading the charge is Jessica Schleider, an assistant professor of clinical psychology in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences. Schleider’s project, “Harnessing Network Science to Personalize Scalable Interventions for Adolescent Depression,” aims to develop brief, accessible and effective treatment options by combining Big Data, virtual interventions and the 21st century teenager’s most constant companion, the almighty smartphone.

The big idea: Survey teens about depression via their phones and crunch the data into digital “networks” of symptoms and effects, which can serve as smartly sourced predictors of which cases will benefit most from computer-based interventions – a sort of emotional pre-emptive strike that can stop hopelessness or daily-activity withdrawal from snowballing.

“Low access to treatment and the vast overlay of different types of treatments for depression that often take a long time to conduct are problems,” Schleider said Tuesday. “If teens’ symptom structures do predict whether they respond to specific single-session interventions, results may yield a novel, powerful approach to matching adolescents to targeted treatments based on personalized clinical need.”

The NIH, at a minimum, would like to know more. Schleider’s project, which is focused on a cohort of 300 teens experiencing depression, has now been boosted by a five-year, $2 million Early Independence Award, designed by the NIH specifically for “outstanding early-career scientists ready for independence.”

“What’s new about this grant is integrating a piece called ‘idiographic network science,’ which may help us figure out which brief intervention may be best-tailored for which adolescents with depression,” noted Schleider, the first SBU faculty member to snag an Early Independence Award. “It’s personalized medicine within mental health.”

In addition to facilitating mental-health services that are specifically tailored to each patient, Schleider’s efforts – by working beyond the brick-and-mortar clinic – could take a bite out of the high global cost of clinical depression treatment, which has skyrocketed past $210 billion annually and is still climbing.

“We have the opportunity to learn many different things about the promise of personalized symptom networks and brief interventions for adolescent depression,” Schleider noted.

The assistant professor, who completed her PhD at Harvard University (clinical psychology, 2018) and an American Psychological Association-accredited doctoral internship at Yale School of Medicine, is an ideal recipient of the NIH’s Early Independence Award, according to Interim Stony Brook University President Michael Bernstein, who called the $2 million grant “a testament both to the excellence of her research and to the unique promise it holds for improving social welfare.”

“Professor Schleider’s work to promote accessible mental-health services for teenage populations is extraordinary,” Bernstein added.