The Digital Conceptualisation of Depression – Dr Arshya Vahabzadeh

Posted on: February 3, 2017
Last Updated: September 5, 2020

Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh is a Harvard-trained physician-technologist specializing in pediatric and adult psychiatry, and family medicine. As an expert on the use of new technologies for mental health disorders, Dr. Vahabzadeh has over 20 national and international awards and recognized as a “40 under 40” healthcare innovator. He believes that a convergence of clinical neuroscience, data science, and exponential technologies, can result in transformational change for global mental health. 

Author Quotes  

The big question is, how many different symptom combinations can lead to the diagnosis of depression? 227 symptom combinations can lead to a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) diagnosis.

This means that people with depression do not look the same.

Furthermore, there is tremendous overlap with other psychiatric disorders indicating that the categories in DSM are by no means ‘clean categories’.

Summary and slides  

In this video, Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, Harvard-trained physician-technologist, and innovation officer of the Massachusetts General Psychiatry Academy talks about the complexity and heterogeneity of depression when broken down into its symptom components. 

For example, the following is the prevalence of respective conditions in depression

  • Alcohol abuse/dependence = 27%
  • Anxiety disorders = 57%
  • Personality disorders = 44%
  • Pure MDD = 21%

To add to the complexity we know that the microbiome, the gut, and the brain are all linked and the inflammatory hypothesis of depression creates further heterogeneity.

Thus; Is it time to reimagine our research scales?

What do our research scales actually show?

An interesting study by Eiko Fried investigated to which degree 7 common depression scales differ in their item content and generalisability. The 7 instruments encompass 52 disparate symptoms. Surprisingly, 40% of the symptoms appear in only a single scale, and 12% across all instruments.

The author concludes –

The substantial heterogeneity of the depressive syndrome and low overlap among scales may lead to research results idiosyncratic to particular scales used, posing a threat to the replicability and generalizability of depression research.

One has to ask –

What on earth are we measuring?

Not each patient weighs each symptom equally – How each symptom matters to a patient varies a great deal.

What are the things that are going to give our patients the best quality of life?

Perhaps the most striking statistic of all is that only 28.7% receive any treatment for depression.

Take-Home Points  

  • Depression is a collection of symptoms and patients can have multiple comorbidities 
  • Research scales can be very different and it may not be clear what is being measured 
  • Most patients with depression are not being seen or treated by clinicians


Learn more
  1. From Apps to Systems in Mental Health Assessment and Management – Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh
  2. Bridging the Mind-body Gap – Digital and Neuroscientific Approaches Q&A – Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh
  3. Technology Advancements in Psychiatry – Part 2 – Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh
  4. Technological Advances in Psychiatry – From Couch to Cloud by Arshya Vahabzadeh
  5. Technology and The Converging Paths of Mental Health – Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh
  6. Frontiers of Psychiatry – Digital and Neuroscientific Approaches By Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh