Improving Child and Adolescent Care With “Big Data”

February 11, 2023

All too often, getting to the right diagnosis and treatment plan for a mental health disorder is a time-consuming, confusing, and stressful progression of guesswork, trial and error, and missed opportunities. This painful scenario is only intensified when it’s a child who is struggling.

Dr. Alex De Nadai wants to change that.

As McLean’s first director of Data Science and Computational Medicine in the Nancy and Richard Simches Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, De Nadai is working to improve pediatric mental health outcomes using large volumes of data that are already available from a range of sources.

Ultimately, he wants to take the guesswork out of diagnoses.

“Our work is focused on giving clinicians the information they need to accurately and efficiently diagnose their patients, as well as giving our patients the information they need to live healthy and fulfilling lives—without the runaround. I want to get things right for our patients the first time,” explained De Nadai.

Simply put, “big data” are large, complex data sets—sets that are so voluminous that traditional software can’t always manage them. But these data are a treasure trove of information that can be harnessed to improve health outcomes if you know what you’re looking at. This is De Nadai’s bailiwick.

He joined McLean in 2022 and his area of expertise—computational medicine—is a unique marriage of computer science and psychology. He’s a numbers guy who is always aware of the people behind those numbers.

Dr. Alex De Nadai

Dr. Alex De Nadai

Philanthropy was vital to bringing De Nadai and his groundbreaking research to McLean.

Honorary Trustee Betty Brudnick, who served on the hospital’s Board of Trustees for many years, and her family immediately understood the potential for De Nadai’s work. Ardent supporters of research into child and adolescent mood disorders, the family’s generous multi-year commitment made it possible to recruit him.

“We have always considered McLean a leader in the mental health field, so it made sense to support this important new area, especially since it has strong potential to help young people,” said Brudnick. “We are excited to have Dr. De Nadai join McLean in this new field that benefits child and adolescent mental health research.”

De Nadai doesn’t just want to improve diagnostics and treatments, he wants to use data to prevent ailments before they complicate people’s lives.

For years, mental health diagnoses have been dependent on patient reporting, clinician intuition and experience, and burgeoning research.

Now, computational medicine offers a better and faster way to predict who might develop certain disorders, how they might respond to specific treatments, and which symptoms might indicate more serious concerns down the road.

“When someone has a broken arm, they receive an x-ray to diagnose it, and the results guide physicians’ next steps,” explained De Nadai. “With mental health, many patients receive several different diagnoses before
getting the right one. With big data, you can more accurately identify which diagnosis is correct and which treatments are most likely to work in each situation.”

De Nadai’s expertise fits strategically with the direction of McLean’s Simches Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, which, under the leadership of its chief, Daniel Dickstein, MD, FAAP, is focused on expanding the scope and scale of research into mental health issues in youth as well as uniformly screening young people for mental health disorders.

Millions of young people live with undetected symptoms and undiagnosed mental health conditions.

Dickstein’s vision attracted the interest of McLean Trustee Constance (Connie) Noonan Hadley, PhD, and her husband Chris. “McLean is a place where big things can happen and Dr. Dickstein’s vision is bold and exciting,” said Connie.

Added Chris, “Children and teens have suffered tremendously over the past few years, and we are honored to support McLean’s effort to address mental health issues earlier in life.”

De Nadai’s other strengths include teaching and mentoring. Before coming to McLean, De Nadai ran a mentorship program in biomedical data science for first-generation college students from diverse backgrounds.

Growing the next generation of researchers and clinicians is a major thrust of the division, and Dickstein is confident that De Nadai is the right person to inspire and encourage them to pursue careers in research and clinical psychiatry.

“Alex is an incredible asset to McLean,” Dickstein said. “He’s a clinical psychologist and also a gifted statistician, researcher, and mentor. I’m thrilled to work with Alex in jumpstarting new research and training efforts in our division.”

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