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Transforming Child Mental Health

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Duke is leading a revolution in child mental health. With autism, anxiety, and other disorders on the rise, it is imperative that children be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Duke researchers, with the help of a team of Bass Connections students, are working on making diagnosis easier, cheaper, and more accurate. Their aim is to make diagnostic tools accessible to the general population, empowering children and caregivers.

What if we could detect mental health and developmental problems in very young children, treat them early, and improve their chances of developing to their full potential and prospering in society?

Two Duke faculty members with decades of expertise in different disciplines are collaborating to make this a reality. Guillermo Sapiro, the Edmund T. Pratt Jr. School Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Helen Egger, chief of Duke Medicine’s Division of Child and Family Mental Health and Developmental Neuroscience, are combining Sapiro’s image analysis software with Egger’s thousands of hours of video interviews with children to mine the footage for data and detect signs of mental health disorders.

While a clinician or daycare provider might not always recognize a brief delay in a toddler’s eye movement, say, or a lack of eye contact, video analysis could raise a red flag automatically. “If we can find patterns in the data that point to just a few simple tests or questions that truly indicate a problem, that would be a tremendous tool for clinicians,” Sapiro said. “It’s an exciting project because the contribution to society could be huge.”

Sapiro and Egger are getting help from a team of Bass Connections students. In November 2014, the team started testing a new tablet application that children can “play” with while the program watches for physical and facial responses to visual cues played on the screen. It would quickly analyze the data and automatically report any warning signs. This would make it easy for a parent or teacher to test a child.

“Research shows that the earlier autism can be spotted, the more beneficial intervention can be,” says Sapiro. “We want to provide everyone in the world with the ability to spot those signs as early as possible.”