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Ohio State engineers trying to reverse suicide rates through technology

With suicides increasing at alarming rates in America, scientists at The Ohio State University are trying to reverse the trend through collaboration across scientific boundaries.

With a keen eye on adapting engineering and technology models toward mental health and wellness issues, faculty and students at Ohio State are already earning accolades for their research in this realm.

Ohio State Electrical and Computer Engineering Ph.D. scholar Hugo Gonzalez Villasanti recently won the highest honor given by the university to a student – a Presidential Fellowship.

Villasanti is developing a framework for technology-assisted neural and sensory stimulation therapies using virtual and augmented reality. Specifically, he is trying to find ways to treat depressive and bipolar disorders, which are dangerously pervasive worldwide.

“It’s so prevalent. It is costing society over $1 trillion worldwide per year. Think about $1 trillion per year, how many lives are lost to suicide. A multi-disciplinary perspective is needed to analyze this challenge,” he said.

Watch a short video of Gonzalez discussing his work in the lab.

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the United States has increased 30 percent across all racial and ethnic groups since 1999, in both men and women, cities and rural areas, and across all age groups below 75. It was the 10th leading cause of death in the country in 2016, accounting for the loss of nearly 45,000 Americans over the age of 10. 

Combining mental wellness with technology is also making strides in other programs at Ohio State. The university hosted its first Brain Health Hack in March, co-sponsored by the Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance, and Ohio State’s Neurological Research Institute.

Organized by Kedar Hiremath, manager of Ohio State's Chronic Brain Injury (CBI) Discovery Theme program, the goal of the hackathon was to get faculty, staff and students to combine forces on neurotechnology solutions for brain health. Seeing a successful model already in place with the INNOVATE-O-thon events through the Institute for Materials Research at Ohio State, Hiremath and his team started planning.

The event worked, Hiremath said. Winners went on to present their ideas at a neurological convention, plus began teaming up with faculty.

"Two students ended up joining research labs and several faculty members from different disciplines started working together on new projects as well," he said.

Assistant Professor Marcie Bockbrader, a Wexner Medical Center Ph.D. in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, said the hack helped connect the dots across the university.

“We were thinking about different ways to use technology to improve our interventions with patients for health and wellness," she said. “Ways to help patients improve their stress, to decrease the need for opioids for pain reduction, ways that we can transition care from the hospital setting into the home setting; just using technology to improve the patient’s mindset."

Watch a video recap of the 2018 Brain Health Hack event.

Villasanti said the goal is to find a pathway for people to better manage their stress, emotions and cognitive issues, by complementing progress already made in the areas of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. 

“We want to offer people with mood disorders a way to understand the dynamics of their mental state," Villasanti said. "What affects their behavior? What triggers manic and depressive episodes and how can they prevent them? Once you analyze one topic you start to see connections with other mental health challenges. It’s narrow to think about depression, anxiety, bipolar, and others as discrete entities, but instead, it should be addressed from a holistic perspective."

Mood disorders, Villasanti said, can really benefit from a control engineering perspective, through modeling and analysis of the main drivers of episodes, or incorporating non-invasive bio-signal sensory methods like virtual reality. Results could show therapeutic changes in a person, intended to last longer than medication. He is analyzing and understanding the dynamics of symptoms and triggers, the interactions between vulnerabilities, stress, emotions, cognition, as well as the effects of psychotherapy and medicine. This information is personalized and delivered through video games, cognitive training or other routes.

“It’s very similar to psychoeducation,” he said. “Letting people learn how to identify and manage their issues.”

When he first came to Ohio State, Villasanti was focused heavily on traditional control systems engineering. He said it wasn’t until he began working with mentor and ECE Professor Kevin Passino did he truly see how his skills could easily adapt to many different scientific disciplines. 

Passino said Villasanti is now an integral member of his Technology 4 Mental Health research group and a leader in the subject matter.

"He is great at developing and evaluating sorely-needed novel perspectives on alternatives to current practices in therapy, ones that are non-invasive and science-based," he said.

Their previous work in developing apps to inform binge drinkers of their behavior and provide guidance in real time gained media attention in 2017. 

“From the very beginning, we started to look outside our field to see how our knowledge could be more useful,” Villasanti said. “I started with finance and poverty, trying to solve and assist people there. What will it take for a person to get out of poverty with little assets and in an uncertain environment? Then, we switched to drinking behaviors, asking in which cases is peer pressure beneficial or detrimental in alcohol drinking events? Why are we seeing so much alcohol being used?”

This kind of open-minded search to solve problems led to a focus on bipolar disorders. 

As a student at Ohio State, Villasanti said he couldn’t have found a better environment to work in. 

“I benefit from being here at Ohio State. The opportunities to collaborate are infinite,” he said. “Breaking barriers is valuable. It’s something we should do more of. Sometimes we are addressing the same problems very differently – or even have identical perspectives – but we’re not talking to each other. I think Ohio State is a perfect ground to start breaking these barriers, thinking about how new knowledge can emerge from these different perspectives.”

Passino’s Technology 4 Mental Health group is exploring stress management and mindfulness, audio stimulation, along with mathematics. 

“We’re not trying to create technology they will be dependent upon – I just put on my virtual reality hat and problem solved,” Villasanti said. “No, we’re trying to provide tools for them to figure it out. That’s when the actual plastic changes in the brain occur. When you learn how to do something, the neuronal dynamics change in the brain, producing long lasting effects.”

In total, five Buckeye engineering students earned Presidential Fellowships this year at Ohio State. The award honors the outstanding scholarly accomplishments and potential of graduate students entering the final phase of their dissertation research or terminal degree project.

Other winners included mechanical engineering students Ehsan Akbari and Hoda Hatoum, as well as biomedical engineering student Christopher Bobba, and computer science and engineering student Fei Wu.

To learn more about Villasanti's research, head to Technology 4 Mental Health online.

Article by Ryan Horns, Ohio State ECE/IMR Communications Specialist