Jul 24, 2017

AI is helping researchers understand mental illness

Toby Talbot / AP

Machine learning, AI, computer games and virtual reality are helping researchers study and better understand psychiatric disorders, particularly borderline personality disorder (BPD), per MIT Tech Review. Sarah Fineberg and colleagues at Yale University are using a computer game to understand feelings of social rejection in people with BPD.

Past difficulties in studying psychiatry include a reliance on subjective observations, thus making it difficult to objectively understand the unique human behavior expressed by people with mental disorders. And the cause of BPD is still unknown — researchers understand that various social, genetic and environmental factors contribute to it, but pinning it down on a large scale hasn't been easy.

That's where machine learning and AI come in.

Virtual reality has helped researchers study behavior by creating a digital environment with controlled conditions.

  • In one case study, participants with and without borderline personality disorder (BPD) controlled their own avatar in the VR world.
  • They were then asked to talk about the avatar they interacted with in the digital environment.
  • One group claimed the other avatar was being controlled by the participant's "romantic partner."
  • By using VR, researchers could observe how key details about interpersonal behavior — how closely they approached someone, the direction of their gaze in relation to the other avatar, and even posture.

A computer game in which three participants pass a ball back and forth helped researchers understand how those with BPD recognize and process social rejection.

  • The game, called Cyberball, allows the researchers to control the other two subjects in the game and how frequently they pass the ball to the subject with BPD, but the participant doesn't know that.
  • In cases where the subject passed the ball to one of the computer-controlled players who then passed it back and forth between themselves, participants felt "sadness and anger in as few as six rounds of play," Finberg told MIT Tech Review.
  • One fascinating finding: Those with BPD felt less sad when they received the ball more times than the other player, but they still felt sad.

Limitations: Some researchers argue that applying computation to psychiatry and neuroscience broadly presents challenges, particularly with data and conclusions being inexact and inconsistent. Last year, researchers in the Oxford Academic's Brain: Journal of Neurology illustrated how applying computer science statistical methods to neuroscience supported "several profoundly different conceptualizations of how hallucinations may arise." Though these two approaches are not the exact same, there are various arguments for how computational intervention in psychiatry presents unique challenges to studying psychiatry.

Bottom line: Using tech to analyze psychiatry has allowed researchers to better understand a range of behaviors exhibited by those with and without BPD, which they hope will ultimately lead to the discovery of what causes this disorder. Recruiting participants remains a difficult task, but as computational psychiatry becomes more prevalent that could change.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 1,014,673 — Total deaths: 52,973 — Total recoveries: 210,335Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 10 p.m. ET: 244,678 — Total deaths: 5,911 — Total recoveries: 9,058Map.
  3. 2020 updates: The Democratic National Committee said its July convention will be postponed until August because of the coronavirus. A federal judge declined to delay Wisconsin's April 7 primary election.
  4. Jobs latest: Coronavirus unemployment numbers are like a natural disaster hitting every state.
  5. Public health latest: Anthony Fauci called for all states across the U.S. to issue stay-at-home orders. The FDA will allow blood donations from gay men after 3-month waiting period, citing "urgent need."
  6. Business latest: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said oil companies are eligible for aid from new lending programs the Federal Reserve is setting up, but not direct loans from his department.
  7. U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt: Navy removes captain of aircraft carrier who sounded alarm about coronavirus.
  8. 1 future thing: In developing countries, consequences of COVID-19 could be deeper and far more difficult to recover from.
  9. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk.
  10. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Mark Meadows considers new White House press secretary

Photos: Alyssa Farah, Defense Department; Stephanie Grisham, Alex Wong/Getty Images; Kayleigh McEnany, Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has privately discussed bringing on Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah or Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany as a new White House press secretary, two sources familiar with the talks tell Axios.

Why it matters: Meadows' start on Tuesday as Trump's new chief — and televised coronavirus briefings that feature President Trump himself — present a chance to overhaul a press shop that's kept a low profile since President Trump ended the tradition of daily press secretary briefings.

CNN: Fauci advises all states issue stay-at-home orders

Dr. Anthony Fauci listens to President Trump speak during a briefing on April 1. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci recommended on Thursday that all states across the U.S. implement stay-at-home orders, at a CNN town hall.

Why it matters: The recommendation stands in contrast to President Trump's calls for "flexibility." Nearly 4o states have issued stay-at-home orders to promote social distancing as a way to combat the novel coronavirus — but the orders vary in strictness and duration.

Go deeperArrow2 hours ago - Health