When Julia Kasparian took her own life in 2016 at just 23 years old, she left a devastated family grappling with unbearable shock, heartache, and hopelessness.
Julia suffered from major depression, which was evidenced by marked low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness to reach out and connect with people.
Harry Kasparian ’73, Julia’s father, knew more work had to be done on the dissociative states and episodes of Julia’s diagnosis; these elements were especially complex and overlapped with other psychiatric disorders, making them extremely difficult to treat.
“What my daughter went through was horrible,” said Kasparian, CEO and founder of CTI, a consulting firm that helps companies implement advanced data analytics solutions. “Knowing that someone you love suffers in anguish is devastating. It’s especially frustrating because it’s hard to relate to their pain as you would to a physical illness. People saw Julia as a thoughtful, funny, “A” student at Bates College, unaware of her exhausting lonely battle with self-hatred, depression, and feelings of hopelessness.”
Finding Hope in Research
While losing Julia often left Kasparian feeling hopeless, he strives to keep her bright light and memory alive, and recently donated a major gift to WPI, which established the Julia Kasparian Fund for Neuroscience Research.
Neuroscientist Jean King, Peterson Family Dean of Arts & Sciences and professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI, said the gift will go toward research aimed at the prevention, early diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness, with a particular focus on dissociative disorder.
Kasparian also established the Julia Kasparian Endowed Scholarship at WPI, which will honor Julia’s life and help support female students studying under a newly established neuroscience program, beginning in the fall of 2019.
The gift, coupled with a separate gift to the Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program at McLean Hospital, will support a unique, collaborative research effort by neuroscientists, computer scientists, and bioinformaticians at WPI and clinical scientists at McLean to better understand the neurological underpinnings of mental health disorders.
“We see a very promising opportunity in mental health research to apply computer science, bioinformatics, and data analytics to psychiatric neuroimaging and clinical research,” said King, whose work has focused on neuroscience, neuroimaging, and psychiatry. “Closer collaboration across these fields will help translate research findings into clinical diagnosis and treatment.”
The research will be led at WPI by King in collaboration with colleagues Dmitry Korkin, associate professor of computer science and director of the Bioinformatics & Computational Biology Program; Xiangnan Kong, assistant professor of computer science; and Mohamed Eltabakh, associate professor of computer science.
The Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program at McLean Hospital will provide the team from WPI with existing de-identified behavioral and genetic data along with fMRI brain scans from patients with dissociative disorders and similar mental illnesses. Using these data, the WPI team hopes to identify and monitor neuronal plasticity (the ability of neurons in the brain to change their shape and function based on changes in their environment) associated with these mental illnesses, including brain structure, function, and chemistry.
Using the collected data, Kong will use data mining to create a way for the team to analyze the brain scans. Korkin, whose work blends virtual reality and other visualization tools to allow researchers to “see” complex biological information in 3D, will develop methods for analyzing data regarding the anatomical, functional, and structural information of patients’ brains. Eltabakh will focus on the design of efficient, secure storage and indexing schemes for the collected data, and data cleansing and integration methods.
A First, and Forward Thinking
King said this is the first time at WPI that a team will examine dissociative disorders, and she hopes that the analyses reveal more information about these conditions and inform the direction of future studies and treatment.
“Neurological research has always been fascinating and fulfilling to me. But talking with someone like Mr. Kasparian, and hearing him describe his daughter’s suffering and her devastating loss, inspires me to bring the research as close to clinical application as I possibly can,” said King. “We need to treat mental illness as individually as we do other illnesses, like different types of cancers. I hope this research can help us better target our diagnosis and treatment of patients.”
Kasparian echoes King’s aspirations for the research and hopes that the team’s findings will lead to greater understanding of dissociative disorder and new discoveries.
“My hope is that this collaboration will help find a way to identify those at risk and tailor individual treatments for the best outcomes,” he said. “It’s so sad. These people don’t want to die, they just want to stop hurting. We’ll do everything we can to understand how people get to the point of considering suicide and to come up with new ways to save their lives.”
-- By Jessica Messier