From the eyes of a mother

Randye Kaye is mother of a son diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She knows the difficulties in advance of a diagnosis and the trouble managing the disease. Boehringer Ingelheim knows these challenges too and uses the opportunity of digital technologies to break new ground.

Randye Kaye usually starts her key talks with these words: “Imagine you have a child. Think of how your little baby starts growing up, slowly becoming an adult.” After a short break she continues: “And now imagine your child is in puberty and slightly starts to act weird, it retreats, is getting worse in school and starts losing friends.”

In most cases, this is normal behavior, it is not unusual that children in puberty act a little bit strange. Usually this behavior changes after a few years – but sometimes it does not. Sometimes this behavior can be the first sign of a mental disease. Kaye experienced exactly that. She is the mother of Ben, who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Today she supports families with similar stories and experiences, because she knows how these families feel. “It is completely heartbreaking to see your child develop a mental illness. It’s a tremendous challenge for everyone in the family. Even day-to-day things we barely notice can be extremely difficult for Ben.”

83444D40-1F3A-45F9-981C-87234C6E25BB Created with sketchtool.

Taking antipsychotic drugs can suppress the symptoms and enable a regulated everyday life. The earlier treatment begins in such cases, the better the chances of success. But exactly that can be a problem – the very first symptoms are non-specific. Patients seem apathetic or suffer from sleep disorders or listlessness. These symptoms are often misinterpreted as stemming from puberty. To tackle this issue, Boehringer Ingelheim follows a research approach that goes beyond the development of drugs. The goal is to offer support to physicians in the early-stage diagnosis of mental disorders.

It is completely heartbreaking to see your child develop a mental illness.

Randye Kaye

Using the momentum of digitalization

Dr. Cornelia Dorner-Ciossek from the Central Nervous System (CNS) Diseases research group at Boehringer Ingelheim plays a decisive role in this effort. She sees a huge opportunity in the field of neuro-research, especially by using digital technology: “The use of digital technology makes me feel optimistic about the future of brain research. Technological advancements have enabled smartphones to be commonplace and extremely sophisticated. Researchers are determining how we can best use this technology to both diagnose a mental illness and help people to manage it.”

One approach from Boehringer Ingelheim to improve the early diagnosis focuses on digital speech analysis. The way people speak and express themselves is determined by their ability to think straight. Diseases such as schizophrenia but also Alzheimer’s dementia and many other psychiatric diseases affect these, although in different ways. Especially people with advanced disease progression show many characteristic modifications in their speech. The software aims to analyze disease-typical telltale changes in sentence structure, rhythm, and intonation at an early stage when the changes are still imperceptible to the human ear. Kaye supports this, since she knows about the importance of an early diagnosis. It took several years, many visits to the physician and uncomfortable conversations with psychiatrists until her son got a diagnosis. Randye remembers the moment as follows: “Finding out that your child truly does have a mental illness is devastating, as nobody wants someone they love to come down with a diagnosis like that.

However, after these years of uncertainty, learning what was going on was also a relief. We could now move forward to find treatment options and that was the hopeful part of it.”

Dr. Cornelia Dorner-Ciossek researches in the field of CNS.

Improving a Patient's life

In the future, digital technologies and smart devices could also be an option to help patients with schizophrenia manage their disease. Dr. Bernd Sommer, Head of Department CNS Diseases Research, sees a great opportunity through the advancing of big data. Research teams now have access to complex patient data sets collected under real world conditions – possible through the smartphone. “We are able to analyze the daily problems of patients with schizophrenia electronically. That means the psychiatric lab is becoming less and less an actual physical lab and space,” explains Sommer.

“Knowing that we operate in a field that requires utmost diligence when assessing the potential effect of our new medications, we see two key elements to drive our clinical study design: we achieve precise measurement and accuracy through technology, but also include input from people personally involved in mental health situations and their insights,” says Dr. Stephane Pollentier, Head of Medicine CNS, “With that, we try to capture what really matters to patients.”

In concrete terms, the new possibilities could have an impact on how patients can tackle the symptoms of the disease. Because the symptoms of schizophrenia occur in recurrent attacks, the disease pattern is an interplay of ups and downs. By analyzing the mobility patterns and social behavior of patients via the smartphone, an algorithm could help to identify early signs of an upcoming relapse. Randye Kaye has been through these challenges herself. Managing the right timing can be difficult even for close family members. “These technologies could offer huge relief for the everyday life of people living with schizophrenia and the whole family. To know the course of the disease more precisely could help to intervene earlier. This gives people like my son the possibility to regain their independence,” notes Kaye on the potential impact.

The use of digital technology makes me feel optimistic about the future of brain research.

Dr. Cornelia Dorner-Ciossek

Staying strongly committed

Brain research is one of the most challenging and complex fields of science. The brain contains billions of nerve cells and nerve fibers that are linked by trillions of connections or synapses. Due to the very complicated nature of the brain, failure rates in clinical development are high. Setbacks are more frequent than breakthroughs. The delivery of treatment and services remain inadequate.

“I am always humbled by the fact that we have the privilege to work in an area with so many unmet medical needs,” explains Dr. Michael Sand, who is responsible for several clinical programms. “Knowing of the importance of this work and seeing the promising steps we take keeps me motivated. At Boehringer Ingelheim, we stay strongly committed to the field of brain research.” This gives Randye Kaye hope: “I have noticed that many pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn from the neuro-research field altogether. It therefore gives me so much hope to see that Boehringer Ingelheim remains committed to finding solutions for people living with mental illness.”