Response heterogeneity: Challenges for personalised medicine and big data approaches in psychiatry and chronic pain

Agnes Norbury, Ben Seymour

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Response rates to available treatments for psychological and chronic pain disorders are poor, and there is a considerable burden of suffering and disability for patients, who often cycle through several rounds of ineffective treatment. As individuals presenting to the clinic with symptoms of these disorders are likely to be heterogeneous, there is considerable interest in the possibility that different constellations of signs could be used to identify subgroups of patients that might preferentially benefit from particular kinds of treatment. To this end, there has been a recent focus on the application of machine learning methods to attempt to identify sets of predictor variables (demographic, genetic, etc.) that could be used to target individuals towards treatments that are more likely to work for them in the first instance. Importantly, the training of such models generally relies on datasets where groups of individual predictor variables are labelled with a binary outcome category - usually 'responder' or 'non-responder' (to a particular treatment). However, as previously highlighted in other areas of medicine, there is a basic statistical problem in classifying individuals as 'responding' to a particular treatment on the basis of data from conventional randomized controlled trials. Specifically, insufficient information on the partition of variance components in individual symptom changes mean that it is inappropriate to consider data from the active treatment arm alone in this way. This may be particularly problematic in the case of psychiatric and chronic pain symptom data, where both within-subject variability and measurement error are likely to be high. Here, we outline some possible solutions to this problem in terms of dataset design and machine learning methodology, and conclude that it is important to carefully consider the kind of inferences that particular training data are able to afford, especially in arenas where the potential clinical benefit is so large.

Original languageEnglish
Article number55
StatePublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Big data
  • Chronic pain
  • Clinical trial design
  • Individual differences
  • Machine learning
  • Personalised medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Response heterogeneity


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