The effects of treatment with antidepressant drugs evaluated through the analysis of patients’ tweets

Press Relase 11/02/2021

Scientists from the Integrative Biomedical Informatics research group have identified behavioural and linguistic changes in tweets in Spanish published by users suffering from depression and who are taking medication to treat this disease.

Their work has been published in Journal of Medical Internet Research and was led by Ferran Sanz; with Angela Leis and Francesco Ronzano as first authors, who conducted the work together with Miguel Angel Mayer and Laura I Furlong, all from the Integrative Biomedical Informatics research group.

Depression is one of the most widespread mental illnesses. According to the World Health Organization, it affects more than 322 million people of all ages and is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide.

The possibility of analysing massive data shared on social networks provides us with new opportunities to better understand the behaviour of their users. In this study, using Big Data and text mining, the scientists analysed tweets by users who mentioned they were taking drugs for the treatment of depressive disorders. The main goal was to detect the effects of this medication through changes in the language used in their tweets or in the way these people used Twitter.

In a previous study, the team of researchers observed that users of Twitter who potentially suffer from depression display specific behavioural and linguistic features. This article focuses on the changes in the features of the messages that may be associated with treatment with antidepressant drugs.

The most notable results revealed that during periods in which users stated they were receiving antidepressant drug treatment their Twitter activity increased with longer messages but posting fewer messages at night. They also interacted more with other users (for example, through an increase in number of mentions per tweet, which may reflect an interest in interacting with other people) and also an increase in positive emotions, related to happiness and surprise. "We can state that the behavioural patterns of people who are in treatment with antidepressant drugs change and tend to resemble those of people who do not suffer from depression", Angela Leis details.

There are various types of antidepressant drugs, and this study focuses specifically on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which are the most commonly prescribed drug for treating depression. First, they selected timelines of users mentioning SSRI antidepressants in their tweets. Then, "we analysed changes in behavioural and linguistic features in the tweets posted while users were in treatment, in comparison with tweets posted by the same users when it was less likely that they were taking these drugs", Francesco Ronzano explains. 186 users and their timelines with 668,842 tweets were finally included in the study.

"The use of techniques based on Big Data and text mining, which enable detecting changes in the way in which users interact in their social networks, such as Twitter, can provide us with new opportunities to follow up and monitor patients suffering from one of the most widespread, disabling health problems as is depression", concludes Ferran Sanz, full professor with the UPF Department of Experimental and Health Sciences (DCEXS) and director of the Research Programme on Biomedical Informatics (GRIB) of the IMIM and UPF.

Reference article:

Leis A, Ronzano F, Mayer MA, Furlong LI, Sanz F. Evaluating Behavioral and Linguistic Changes During Drug Treatment for Depression Using Tweets in Spanish: Pairwise Comparison Study. J Med Internet Res. 2020 Dec. doi: 10.2196/20920.

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