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Research for Relief conducts targeted mental health research in Montana

A more targeted approach to mental health care may be on the horizon as some Montana residents participate in clinical trials exploring a different treatment for mental illness.

“Prescribing treatment today is a trial-and-error process because all you need to know is the label ‘depression,’” said Dr. Amit Etkin, founder and CEO of Alto Neuroscience.

Etkin, a former Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, heads the California-based biotechnology company. Alto Neuroscience's Research for Relief Initiative aims to make treatments for mental illness more targeted.

Current treatments diagnose people with broader classes of illnesses, such as depression or PTSD, Etkin said. This lacks specificity and lumps together many biological factors.

“The consequence of that is that the medications and other treatments we have for them tend not to work as well and we don't know who they actually work for,” Etkin told NBC Montana.

Alto is currently undergoing FDA testing for four drugs that are intended to provide more effective treatment for major depressive disorder (a subtype of depression) and schizophrenia.

The current hypothesis is that these drugs could help people with certain biomarkers.

The trial approach is decentralized, meaning people in areas like Montana where in-person classes aren't available can participate. Participants can test for biomarkers at home using short tests on a computer or using an EEG, which measures brain activity.

The initiative had its first participant from Montana in August 2022. By the end of June, the number of participants in the research registry had grown to over 100 Montana residents.

Alto attributes this growth to continued outreach, unmet need and a partnership with the Montana chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“By bringing the research here, we are shortening the time it takes to get it – the actual care – to Montana,” said Matt Kuntz, executive director of NAMI Montana.

Before Alto, NAMI Montana had been trying for over a decade to bring rigorous mental health research to Montana, Kuntz told NBC Montana.

Kuntz said that without Montana residents, the research would reflect not only the acceleration of health care delivery, but also that a shortage of health care providers is one of the challenges there.

Those interested in participating in the ongoing research can complete an online survey.

Anna Harden

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