What happens when two Virginia Tech faculty in totally different research fields decide to collaborate? For Andrea Wittenborn, assistant professor of human development in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and Hazhir Rahmandad, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering, the result is notable. 

They have received a $420,000 Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant Award from the National Institutes of Health for a two year project, “Modeling the dynamics of adult depression.”

Wittenborn, who joined Virginia Tech in 2007 in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program, focuses her research on couple treatment for depression. Areas of interest for Rahmandad, who has been at Virginia Tech since 2006, are simulation modeling and system dynamics, systems engineering process, product development, and project management. 

Although both teach in graduate programs at the Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church, their paths did not cross until they struck up a conversation at lunch during a Virginia Tech Faculty Development Institute course they took.

“We started chatting about our research and I was quite interested in the system dynamics modeling tool which Hazhir applies in his work,” Wittenborn said. “I became excited about what system dynamics modeling could offer towards a more complex understanding of adult depression and its treatment and asked for his thoughts on its potential for addressing such a problem.”

“I explained that since simulated environments have benefited prior research on other complex public health problems, such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, epidemic response, and diabetes, there was certainly potential  that the same methodology could help develop a more rapid and cost effective path to personalizing treatments for depression,” said Rahmandad.

For a period of nine months the two explored this possibility in weekly meetings. They assigned each other “homework” – readings that would help them better understand one another’s work.

Then, with assistance from the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, which provides faculty support for developing proposals in the social sciences, humanities, and arts, Wittenborn and Rahmandad began the process of writing the grant proposal for the National Institutes of Health.

Wittenborn, who is serving as the principal investigator on the project, said that “developing a successful proposal was particularly challenging because the grant is reserved for transformational and innovative groundbreaking ideas.” She said that in addition to financial support, the Institute for Society, Culture and Environment provided invaluable help throughout the development process. 

The institute’s director, Karen Roberto, and Betsy McDonel Herr, senior research scientist, reviewed and critiqued their drafts along the way.

The funded research aims at improving understanding of complex feedback mechanisms in which major depressive disorder -- a serious and chronic public health problem with considerable variation in treatment response -- is embedded and to use that knowledge towards personalized decision making in its treatment. System dynamics methods will be employed to develop an individual-level model of major depressive disorder dynamics that also takes into account individual’s relationships, physical health, and economics. 

After calibration with multiple data sets, the model will be empirically validated against benchmark clinical trials to assure that the model is representative of well-targeted patient profiles. Finally, an exploration of the feasibility of using systems modeling to test personalized approaches to the treatment of major depressive disorder will ensue and pharmacological and behavioral treatments will be preliminarily examined.

Rahmandad will serve as co-principal investigator for the project; Steve Hollon, Gertrude Conaway Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, as co-investigator; and Jenn Rick, a master's degree student in the Virginia Tech Marriage and Family Therapy program, as research assistant. The team will also include a postdoc, Niyousha Hosseini, in the field of industrial and systems engineering.

“With promising results, our model will permit future studies testing beneficial and adverse effects, dosage and timing, and long-term prognosis of various treatment regimens for unique patient subgroups,” Wittenborn said.



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