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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

How Hertz is fighting to stay relevant

A Hertz car rental counter in the Miami International Airport. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In the span of less than a week, Hertz has made three big strategic moves intended to keep the car rental giant from fading into oblivion.

Why it matters: Ride-hailing and other mobility innovations are rapidly changing the way people get from A to B, posing an existential threat to traditional car rental services.

Facebook is too big to change

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As Facebook faces a sustained wave of critical coverage pushing the company to reform itself, it also confronts a law of corporate physics: Transforming a gargantuan company is nearly impossible.

The big picture: Facebook's critics — and some of its own employees, as internal documents have shown — say it has long prioritized growth and profits over safety. Shifting that kind of mindset in a large organization takes time and will — and the company has to really want it, which Facebook has yet to make clear.

"Build Back Better" goes global

Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP//Getty Images

President Biden's "Build Back Better" mantra is about to take the global stage at the G20 summit in Rome.

The big picture: The global debate awaiting Biden in Rome has a lot in common with the debate he's leaving behind in Washington: whether and how to undertake a major economic restructuring with climate change and social equity at the forefront.