Notre Dame computer scientists receive NSF award to reduce opioid misuse through improved nutrition

University of Notre Dame computer scientists within the Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society and the College of Engineering have received an award of $300,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the development of a new machine learning framework used to offer personalized dietary recommendations to address the national opioid epidemic.

Although opioid users are offered medication assisted treatment (MAT), which can effectively reduce opioid misuse and addiction, diet is an important—and often overlooked—factor in recovery. 

“Relapse is common because the side effects from the medication, compounded by a lack of proper nutrition, accelerate depression and anxiety,” says Yanfang (Fanny) Ye, associate director of applied analytics for the Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society and Collegiate Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame. When treatments combine MAT methods with an increased focus on proper diet, opioid users are more likely to make a successful recovery.

Professor Yanfang (Fanny) Ye

As principal investigator for the project, Ye explains the necessity to develop dietary interventions to help recovering users: “Data has the ability to help people remain fully-committed to opioid recovery by providing them with education on what foods they need to eat to stay mentally and physically healthy.” The award complements another current research project which uses advanced artificial intelligence techniques to tackle the online opioid trafficking crisis and received a $1 million four-year grant from the NSF in 2022. 

Nitesh Chawla, founding director of the Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society and Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, is a co-investigator on the project. Also joining Ye and Chawla is Chuxu Zang, assistant professor of Computer Science at Brandeis University. The team will use the data generated from online crowd-sourcing and business review platforms such as Yelp, to develop a dietary standard which incorporates multifactorial conditions, such as diet preference and nutrient diversity. The personalized dietary guide will be directly available to recovering opioid users, and can also aid clinicians in developing recovery care plans.

Chawla describes the opioid epidemic as “one of society’s wicked problems.” He notes that the project’s goal of alleviating the crisis aligns with Notre Dame’s goal of advancing human understanding through scholarship which seeks to heal, unify, and enlighten. 

“Currently, most health insurance plans do not cover dietary nutrition services for opioid misuse and addiction recovery and the programs may primarily target socially privileged groups, which thereby potentially widens health inequality.” Chawla explains. “By developing effective yet affordable solutions to facilitate personalized dietary recommendations against opioid misuse and addiction, this project is one of the many ways that the Lucy Family Institute is embarking on an initiative to leverage data-driven insights to bridge the gap in healthcare disparities.” 

The resulting framework developed from the project will accelerate personalized dietary nutrition intervention as a supplementary treatment for reducing opioid overdose and will work to provide solutions to eliminating the national opioid crisis. 

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Christine Grashorn, Communications Specialist
Notre Dame Research / University of Notre Dame / 574.631.4856 / @UNDResearch

About the Lucy Family Institute for Data & Society

Guided by Notre Dame’s Mission, the Lucy Family Institute adventurously collaborates on advancing data-driven convergence research, translational solutions, and education to ethically address society’s wicked problems. As an innovative nexus of academia, industry, and the public, the Institute also fosters data science access to strengthen diverse and inclusive capacity building within communities. Our vision is to become the preeminent intellectual beacon, inspiring collaborative, equitable, and impactful data innovations as a global force for good.