This Week in Research: Googling Mental Illness; Kidney Models

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First, researchers figured out that they could use Twitter to track the progression of the flu in real time. Now they’re expanding that technique to crowd-source information about other problems, including mental health issues. The overall findings? Everyone feels a little more schizophrenic, OCD, and anxious in the wintertime.

The study authors, who included Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health doctoral candidate Benjamin Althouse, analyzed Google searches from the U.S. and Australia between 2006 and 2010. They found that searches for terms related to eating disorders were 37 percent lower in the summer in the U.S. (42 percent in Australia). That was the most dramatic drop, but searches for many other mental health issues — from schizophrenia (37 percent) to bipolar disorder (16 percent) to suicide (24 percent) — were lower in the summer.

This research technique “can help researchers across the field of mental health generate additional new [theories] while exploring other trends inexpensively in real-time,” Althouse said.  “For instance, moving forward, we can explore daily patterns in mental health information-seeking . . . maybe even finding a ‘Monday effect.’ The potential is limitless.”

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Here’s another example of how Hopkins doctors are using the web for innovative public health programs:  they’ve developed an app to help potential kidney transplant patients decide whether they want to accept an available organ or wait for a different (potentially healthier) one in the future.

The problem comes when donor kidneys are infected with hepatitis C, and potential recipients have to decide which is the bigger risk:  waiting longer or potentially being infected by the transplant.

The Hopkins docs came up with a mathematical model to predict which risk was greater. “Because the supply of the healthiest donor organs is too small, patients need to consider all organ offers or risk dying while waiting for an organ,” said study leader Dorry L. Segev, an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to the Hopkins Hub. “But this is a very hard decision, and many people turn down transplant offers that, in reality, would provide them significant benefit. Often they would have done much better taking the organ at hand than waiting for the next available one. This is the most important decision of a transplant candidate’s life, and we have developed a novel tool we believe can help patients make the best choice.”



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