The Big Neural Data Project: Mental health research gets a new look

Carlos Escalante studied Neuroscience on his Chevening Award at University College London. His initiative, The Big Neural Data Project, uses technology to optimise therapies for mental health. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified mental health needs around the world, he tells us how he’s planning to transform approaches to mental health.

Mental health is a huge field. At The Big Neural Data Project we work to improve research practices and therapies available – but there are problems. One that we have to contend with consistently is the small sample sizes; to better mental health research we need more statistical power. We are using technology to design, create and deliver research tools that allow us to combat this problem. Specifically, we are creating an app and a simulator that can be used in almost any digital device (laptops, cellphones, tablets, smartwatches etc.) to reach as many people as possible to conduct behavioural research. We believe that through behavioural research and computational neuroscience we can disentangle huge tracts of behavioural data and use this to help design more effective therapies for the most common mental disorders.

I’d like to make the apps and the simulator accessible to as many people as possible. I want to create a system whereby mental health and neuroscience research can be completed, quickly and conveniently. That way we can use technologies like artificial intelligence to process the data in real time and build a constantly evolving, and open database for any lab or single scientist in the world to access and test hypotheses that allow us to propel our current therapies to a new era of mental health: Precision Psychiatry.

After my Chevening award at UCL getting to know the massive therapeutic potential of Computational Neuroscience, I understood how huge its impact is, and wanted to continue working to help advance our understanding of mental illness. It was also my award year that connected me with a network of professionals that caused the development of The Big Neural Data Project.

I’m immensely proud of many of our individual projects at the Big Neural Data Project, but I believe the best thing we’ve accomplished is the community of friends, allies and supporters we have. On top of the professionals we work with, students from public universities in the country are choosing us as the institution at which to do their internships, social service, and professional practices. As they grow as engineers, designers and computer scientists we grow too with their expertise and unique problem-solving styles.

One of the projects we were involved in creating recently is dudascovid.com, which is a chatbot that gathers expert information and provides evidence-based answers to questions about COVID-19 and its surrounding topics for Spanish-speaking people. We got involved in creating dudascovid because we believe information is key to preserve not only our physical but also our mental health. But for information to be helpful instead of damaging, it has to come from trusted, legitimate and solid sources. I would strongly encourage people to face the inevitable uncertainties of this pandemic with information coming from organizations and institutions whose word we can trust, (WHO, PAHO in the Americas) to fight doubt with evidence, legitimacy and science. Even though the information we have on COVID-19 is an ever evolving landscape, being in tune with the emerging information can help us relieve some mental distress.

You can hear more from Carlos and another strand of his work in this short video.