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VA Research Spotlight

Highlights of VA Research on Informatics

December 18, 2019


 Informatics Fact Sheet Informatics attempts to improve the effectiveness and delivery of health care by using health information technology and many other disciplines, such as cognitive and behavioral sciences. VA informatics research and development initiatives cover several areas of broad focus to include: natural language processing, phenotype studies, adverse event monitoring, clinical decision support systems, connected care technologies, and care management tools.

VA Research Currents

VA Diabetes Trial Study gauges VA providers' views on predictive-analytics tool that assesses patient risk

Researchers explored how VA primary care providers are using the Care Assessment Needs report, a predictive-analytics tool that factors in vital signs, lab results, doctor and pharmacy visits, ER use, and other data to calculate a risk score.... (11/13/2019)

VA Diabetes Trial VA National Precision Oncology Program brings tailored cancer treatment to Veterans

An initial study has shown that VA's National Precision Oncology Program has been effective in delivering personalized cancer care. By sequencing tumor samples, the researchers were able to identify mutations that could be treated with approved therapies, or with experimental therapies in clinical trials, for most patients... (10/03/2019)

VA Diabetes Trial Gene variants tied to kidney disease have only modest cardiovascular effect in African Americans

In a study of nearly 31,000 African American participants in VA's Million Veteran Program, researchers found that two gene variants tied to kidney disease have only a modest cardiovascular effect.... (08/16/2019)

VA Diabetes Trial MVP study identifies genes linked to re-experiencing symptoms in PTSD

A VA Million Veteran Program study has identified multiple locations in the human genome related to the risk of re-experiencing traumatic memories, the most distinctive symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder.... (07/29/2019)

VA Diabetes Trial Study finds new genetic markers for peripheral artery disease

VA researchers and colleagues studied the genetic characteristics of 31,300 veterans with peripheral artery disease and identified 19 genetic markers, 18 of which were not previously reported. The study used data from VA's Million Veteran Program.... (07/18/2019)


VA's National Precision Oncology Program

VA's National Precision Oncology Program

VA Research Awards and Career Milestones

VA project receives innovation award for novel AI ecosystem framework VA project receives innovation award for novel AI ecosystem framework

VA project receives innovation award for novel AI ecosystem frameworkDr. Gil Alterovitz, VA director of artificial intelligence, was recognized by the Government Innovation Awards for his role in developing a novel data framework to foster collaboration between private industry and government around AI applications. (11-22-2019)

VA Research Quarterly Update

Investigating the use of precision medicine to treat depressionInvestigating the use of precision medicine to treat depression

VA's Genomic Medicine Implementation program is funding a study to examine the use of genetic data to improve treatment for Veterans with major depressive disorder. The PRIME Care initiative is being led by Dr. David Oslin at the VA Medical Center in Philadelphia. Veterans taking part in the effort will submit a cheek swab so researchers can test their DNA. The results could help their providers decide which antidepressant to prescribe. (April 2018)

VA Research in Action

PTSD Coach appPTSD Coach app
In 2011, clinicians at VA’s National Center for PTSD, drawing on research and evidence-based practice from in and outside VA, developed PTSD Coach, a self-management mobile app. As of mid-2019, PTSD Coach has been downloaded more than 425,000 times in over 100 countries and shown encouraging results in several studies.

Virtual Hope Box smartphone app to prevent suicide Virtual Hope Box smartphone app to prevent suicide
VA investigators teamed with Department of Defense colleagues to create a phone app, the Virtual Hope Box, that helps with suicide prevention.

Tools to aid decision-making for lung cancer screening Tools to aid decision-making for lung cancer screening
Researchers at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System played a key role in developing tools to help patients and their health care providers weigh the risks and benefits of lung cancer screening.

VA Research News Briefs

Sense of purpose appears to ward off cognitive decline

Sense of purpose appears to ward off cognitive decline -  Photo for illustrative purposes only. ©iStock/Image Source Photo for illustrative purposes only. ©iStock/Image Source

Greater purpose in life is linked with lower cognitive decline in middle age, according to an Atlanta VA and Emory University study. Researchers used a machine learning algorithm to assess how purpose in live affects perceived cognitive function. Purpose in life refers to a tendency to derive meanings and purpose from life events. Average participant age was 63. Researchers tested cognitive function with a questionnaire that assesses perceived functional problems that may not yet rise to clinical impairment. Those with greater purpose in life had less perceived cognitive decline. This result held true even after considering other factors that affect cognitive decline, such as activity level and depression. The results suggest that purpose in life is a robust protective factor of cognitive decline in middle age. (Journal of Affective Disorders, February 2020)

Researchers identify genes related to schizophrenia

Researchers identify genes related to schizophrenia - Illustration: ©iStock/Lars NeumannIllustration: ©iStock/Lars Neumann

A team including VA researchers identified several regions on the genome related to schizophrenia risk. The team sequenced the DNA of more than 1,500 patients with schizophrenia. They found seven regions of the genome that appear to relate to neurological dysfunction in schizophrenia. The analysis also confirmed multiple schizophrenia-related regions identified in previous studies. The results help explain the biological processes of schizophrenia and could lead to new targeted treatments, according to the researchers. (JAMA Psychiatry, Oct. 9, 2019)

Gene linked to thinner cortex in PTSD patients

Gene linked to thinner cortex in PTSD patients - Photo: ©iStock/Denes FarkasPhoto: ©iStock/Denes Farkas

Researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System found evidence that gene variants are linked to reduced cortical thickness in people with PTSD. Past research has shown that PTSD is connected to reduced thickness in the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. By testing the genomes of 240 Veterans with PTSD, the researchers found that participants with specific variants of the gene PPM1F had  reduced cortical thickness. The results suggest that people with these gene variants may be susceptible to greater PTSD severity from changes in brain structure, say the researchers. (Journal of Affective Disorders, Aug. 19, 2019)

Gene variants linked to habitual alcohol use

Gene variants linked to habitual alcohol use - Photo by Mitch MirkinPhoto by Mitch Mirkin

Researchers with the VA Connecticut and Boston health care systems found five new locations on the human genome related to habitual alcohol use. Using VA’s Million Veteran Program, the researchers studied the genomes of 126,936 European American Veterans and 17,029 African American Veterans. They found habitual alcohol use—which could lead to alcohol dependence—was linked to gene variants at specific locations on the genome for both groups. One gene, ADH1B, is already known to influence alcohol dependence. Five other gene locations (the most significant of which is called CRHR1) also showed a link to increased habitual alcohol use. These five gene locations have not previously been associated with alcohol use. The results provide new insight into how genetics could affect harmful alcohol use, say the researchers. (Biological Psychiatry, April 8, 2019)

Algorithm for identifying PTSD in electronic health records

Algorithm for identifying PTSD in electronic health records - Photo: ©iStock/Laurence DuttonPhoto: ©iStock/Laurence Dutton

Researchers with VA’s Million Veteran Program have designed a computer algorithm to identify PTSD in electronic health records. Although PTSD may be noted in a patient’s electronic health record, researchers would need to read individual records to pick out patients with the condition for studies. The algorithm searches records for diagnoses and symptoms to classify patients as likely PTSD, possible PTSD, and likely not PTSD. The algorithm had high accuracy when compared with manual chart review. The algorithm could be useful for research and quality improvement endeavors within VA, say the researchers. A quick way to identify thousands of cases using electronic health records would help recruiting for large genome-wide association studies of PTSD. (Journal of Traumatic Stress, April 2019)

Sleep habits predict mortality

Sleep habits predict mortality - Photo for illustrative purposes only.  ©iStock/monkeybusinessimagesPhoto for illustrative purposes only. ©iStock/monkeybusinessimages

Sleep quality and duration are useful in predicting mortality, according to a study including a Minneapolis VA Health Care System researcher. Researchers looked at health data on more than 8,000 older adults, covering an average of 13 years. Using machine learning programs, they found that a multidimensional set of sleep factors was a significant predictor for all-cause and cardiovascular mortality. The most predictive sleep characteristics were time spent in bed, time to bed, wake-up time, and napping habits. Sleep was less predictive of all-cause mortality than factors such as demographics, physical health, or medication but more predictive than health behaviors such as smoking or drinking alcohol. The results suggest that developing comprehensive tools to measure sleep quality and habits could help predict mortality risk, say the researchers. They add that such tools could also aid in working with patients to improve their sleep habits. (Journal of Gerontology, Feb. 18, 2019)

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