One year after the launch of the UCLA Depression Grand Challenge, demonstration projects and an innovative treatment center are off the ground. The initiative aims to help the 300 million people around the world who are suffering from depression.

UCLA scientists have already established national and international collaborations, begun a series of studies and implemented a program that screens and treats UCLA students for depression.

That progress recently helped the UCLA initiative get closer to its goal of achieving a global presence. It passed the first round of reviews for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition, which will award a $100 million grant to a project that will help solve a critical social problem. UCLA’s entry will now move to the first round of judging, which will determine the semifinalists.

► Video: Depression Grand Challenge Worldwide overview for MacArthur Foundation

Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability, and 800,000 lives are lost each year through suicide.

“Such a profound problem requires unprecedented solutions,” said Dr. Nelson Freimer, UCLA’s Maggie G. Gilbert Professor of Psychiatry, who directs the grand challenge and the UCLA Center for Neurobehavioral Genetics. “And the Depression Grand Challenge is unprecedented.”

The grand challenge’s centerpiece is a 10-year “100K Study,” so called because researchers will monitor 100,000 people with the aim of identifying the genetic and environmental causes of depression. It is believed to be the largest study to date of a single disorder.

The study will screen for depression, analyze participants’ genetics, measure early adversity and life stress and assess symptoms through remote monitoring using cell phones and wearable devices. Demonstration projects for each of these are underway with UCLA students and staff.

Based on general statistics about depression, the researchers expect that at least 50 percent of people with depression in the 100K Study will need treatment. Another component of the initiative, the Innovative Treatment Center, will use innovative technologies to offer the most effective treatments based on the project findings. Participants will receive treatment commensurate with the severity of their depression, internet- and app-based programs will deliver proven therapies, and continuous remote monitoring will help the UCLA researchers assess treatment response and guide treatment decisions.

The treatment center’s model soon will be tested on UCLA students and staff. In part, it will supplement the care provided through UCLA’s Student Counseling Center, with services including internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy and peer counseling for students with mild and moderate depression. Students with severe depression can receive treatment from psychiatrists or psychologists through the Innovative Treatment Center.

Eight thousand students will be screened, and about 2,000 will receive treatment. A pilot program for UCLA staff, already underway, aims to evaluate 10,000 employees and treat up to 1,000.

To collect data for the grand challenge, scientists are relying in part on smartphone apps that gather information actively (participants respond to text messages about their moods, for example) and passively (recording the participants’ physical activity). Mobile devices enable doctors and researchers to continuously monitor and assess possible disturbances, such as changes in sleep, activity levels, social interactions or eating habits, that could provide early markers for diagnosing depression.

And the initiative will use the internet to help deliver state-of-the-art therapies to people with these diseases.

“These technologies will allow us to assess and treat depression with more precision than ever before,” said Dr. Michelle Craske, professor of psychology, psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, and director of UCLA Anxiety and Depression Research Center. Craske, recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Scientist Award from the Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology, also is leading the development of the Innovative Treatment Center.

The Depression Grand Challenge is testing treatments that should improve on today’s standard therapies, which are imprecise at best. The genetic analysis being conducted as part of the initiative will identify the precise mechanisms through which genes and stress put one at risk for depression, and the treatment center is creating customized suites of treatments for each patient using only the methods the patient needs for the most targeted, effective treatment.

As a public research institution committed to service, UCLA is uniquely positioned to meet the needs of people with depression. Although much more funding is needed to support the Depression Grand Challenge, the initiative is poised to alleviate depression and the discrimination that often accompanies it in the UCLA community, among the general public, in underserved communities in the region and for people throughout the world.

The UCLA Grand Challenges connect faculty, students and supporters from all disciplines to work together to solve critical issues. The initiatives benefit from philanthropy directed at the $4.2 billion Centennial Campaign for UCLA, which leads up to the campus’s 100th year.