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Case Study: The Hobbit inspires Queensland depression testing program

Researchers in Queensland are using modern imaging and information technology to develop a diagnostic test for depression. Will Turner reports.

The Hobbit’s impending release, a prequel to the box office smash Lord of the Rings trilogy, has inspired many fans to think about their favourite characters.

For a team of researchers at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) the choice is clear, but not for reasons you might expect.

The enigmatic ring lover and hater, Gollum, became an on screen reality thanks to Peter Jackson’s technological ingenuity. The film director’s motion capture system involved actor Andy Serkis in a suit with sensors relaying facial and body movement data to computers and a team of engineers and animators who did the rest.

Now this type of technology is being redirected into the field of mental disorders. It’s the brainchild of Professor Michael Breakspear, head of QIMR’s Mental Health and Complex Disorders Program. The intent is to create an objective tool to assist psychiatrists as they face the daunting task of being the only clinical practitioners in modern medicine whose opinion alone determines whether someone has a major illness.

QIMR this week launched the project which will analyse people’s facial activity and eye movements while watching a range of emotive film clips to compare how reactions differ between participants with depression and those with a clean bill of health.

The initiative, done in partnership with the University of Canberra and the Black Dog Institute, is based on research demonstrating depression sufferers show relatively few facial expressions during emotion charged movie scenes. In addition to facial movements the research will assess speech, physiological responses and brain activity.

Prof. Breakspear said the project’s use of motion capture technology reverses the process used by Peter Jackson to create Tolkien’s central character. “Gollum’s facial expressions were forward engineered from the actor, what we are attempting to do is backward engineer to determine emotion based on facial expressions,” he said.

In a similar manner to the LOTR engineers and animators, the QIMR team will use high definition cameras, computer vision and algorithms to analyse a subject’s response to stimuli. In addition, the imaging technology will be employed to record which parts of the brain are activated and integrated into the analysis.

Prof. Breakspear chuckled at the contrast between the budget for the LOTR trilogy and medical research into depression, a problem currently affecting one million Australians and contributing to the 22 million prescriptions filled annually for mental health-related medications.

As a further intended benefit of the project, Prof. Breakspear said the work could also assist patients managing depression by helping them to identify when their symptoms may be indicating a risk of relapse.

The project is part of a wider body of work being done by the QIMR unit into developing a range of affective tests to supplement clinical opinion. Prof. Breakspear said one of the key benefits of having objective tools to assist diagnosis is standardisation, which would assist with differences of opinion amongst clinicians and how different jurisdictions approach mental health diagnosis and treatment.


The Challenge: Finding a way of assessing physiological symptoms objectively to assist the diagnosis of depression.

The Approach: Filming patients as they watch emotive film clips to detect differences in facial movements and speech between mentally healthy people and those with clinical depression.

The Outcomes: The project is in its early stages, but the intended outcomes are a diagnostic test which will support clinical opinion and help standardise the quality of diagnoses.

The Lessons Learned: Gathering new types of evidence and developing technology in this area is an endeavour with a 5-10 year timeframe to becoming mainstream clinical practice.

The Upside for:

Clinicians: A diagnostic test would provide greater confidence in making a diagnosis and prescribing medication and other treatment, along with making comparisons across patients much simpler.

Patients: In addition to greater certainty about their condition, the technology has the potential to assist in ongoing management and preventing relapse.

The Organisation: The project is boosting QIMR’s wider body of work into developing tests for mental health and complex disorders.

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