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Feeling Isolated? A team of researchers there is working with NASA to develop an interactive computer program to diagnosis and treat depression. Clinical trials begin this month.
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updated 10/6/2008 11:38:27 AM ET 2008-10-06T15:38:27

Depressed? Well, this might cheer you up: If you live in Boston, you can put your sad self to work on behalf of NASA.

A team of researchers there is working with the space agency to develop an interactive computer program to diagnosis and treat depression. Clinical trials begin this month.

"I'm interested in translating what a psychologist can do into what a computer can deliver," said Harvard Medical School's James Cartreine. "We're looking at ways to improve public health with hiring psychologists that we can't afford."

A chance meeting with another doctor, who flew on a 1998 space shuttle medical research mission, led to a collaboration to develop self-help programs for astronauts on long-duration space missions. If successful, the program would be made available for public use, Cartreine said.

Astronauts would be trained on the technique before they fly and then be able to use the program once in orbit. It features sets of guided questions — "Have you been feeling sad nearly every day? Have you lost interest in things you usually enjoy?" — that tie into hundreds of video and audio clips.

The goal of the program is to encourage problem-solving behaviors, which have been shown to help depressed people cope with their situations.

"Depression is more than a change of mood. It's not easily reversible, and it affects how people function. People who are depressed have difficulty just getting going so problems tend to build up," Dartmouth University researcher Jay Buckey, a crewmember on NASA's Neurolab mission, told Discovery News.

"What this does is provide a structured way to think through what they're facing and come up with concrete, structural plans for getting through it," Buckey said. "For someone who's depressed, taking the problem and working through it helps restore the mood, helps rebalance."

While some of the scripts pertain to problems only astronauts face, such as being kept in orbit longer than planned due to spaceship problems, most of the program is highly applicable to the general public, the researchers said.

"Even if you're not depressed, going through this process will help you look at options you wouldn't necessarily see. Just like a well-worn path in a field, our minds can get into paths of thinking, and it's difficult to get them out. People get entrenched," said Buckey.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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