University of Sydney Awarded AU$7.1M in Pursuit of Better MS, Mental Health Treatment

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by Joana Carvalho, PhD |

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The Australian Government’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) has awarded AU$7.1 million (about $4.95 million) to support two projects focused on harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to develop new ways of diagnosing and treating multiple sclerosis (MS) and mental health disorders in young people.

Both projects are being conducted by a team of investigators, ranging from mathematicians to psychologists and data scientists, working at the Brain and Mind Centre of the University of Sydney.

“Our researchers are at the forefront of addressing crucial gaps in medical research that lead to better health outcomes,” Duncan Ivison, PhD, a professor and deputy vice chancellor of research at the University of Sydney, said in a press release.

“These projects exemplify our commitment to multidisciplinary research and especially harnessing cutting edge research in artificial intelligence with outstanding neuroscience that when combined together will make an enormous contribution to the future of healthcare,” Ivison added.

One project will focus on how AI can be used in combination with conventional imaging technologies to create more effective methods to diagnose, monitor, and treat MS patients.

This project, called Translating AI Networks to Support Clinical Excellence in Neuro Diseases (TRANSCEND), is part of a collaboration between the University of Sydney, industry specialists in medical imaging, and health provider networks.

TRANSCEND is being led by Michael Barnett, PhD, head of the Computational Neuroscience Team at the Brain and Mind Centre, together with the Sydney Neuroimaging Analysis Centre, and has received a total of AU$4.02 million in funding.

Its goal is to create an AI learning system trained on patient samples, and able to recognize biomarkers of MS progression in common imaging scans.

“Software-generated ‘artificial neural networks’ have demonstrated a remarkable capacity for (generic) image recognition. Despite the clear potential for this technology to transform health delivery … AI research and implementation has remained the purview of research institutes and technology companies with limited access to real-world data,” Barnett said.

“By incorporating real-world data, TRANSCEND will enable new AI research and technologies within the health sector, while preserving patient privacy and data security,” he added.

The remaining AU$3.1 million from the MRFF grant is going to a project that aims to use AI technology to assess treatment approaches for young people with mental health disorders.

This project is led by Frank Iorfino, PhD, a research fellow in youth mental health and technology at the Brain and Mind Centre and the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“A key challenge for youth mental health care is how to make effective clinical decisions about the timing and sequence of interventions, particularly for those with complex needs. This three-year project will use AI to model youth mental health outcomes and quantify the impact of interventions on these outcomes,” Iorfino said.

Its goal is to create digital tools that may help physicians select the best course of treatment for these patients, with the help of healthcare professionals, and data and computer scientists.

The modeling and methodological part of the project is being led by Sally Cripps, PhD, director of the Centre for Translational Data Science and the ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Data Analytics for Resources and Environments.

“From a clinical perspective, these new approaches could result in real-time decision aids that would help us to make much more accurate decisions about which early interventions are of greatest benefit to young people with emerging major mood or psychotic disorders,” said Ian Hickie, co-director of Youth Mental Health and Policy at the Brain and Mind Centre.

“They will also guide our efforts to provide the most effective forms of secondary prevention,” Hickie added.