By Dekel Taliaz

January, 2020//

Imagine if we could understand and navigate the dysfunction in our brain’s neural circuits in psychiatric disorders. Imagine if we could design new AI models that could direct proper treatment and allow for the activation of new neural circuits that reward desired behaviors. Join me as I discuss at a neural level what may be happening in psychiatric disorders and how, with this knowledge, AI may help in providing a cure!

Mental illness is the largest contributor to disability, according to the Global Burden of Disease.  In fact, half of all workers suffer from mental health. How we treat mental illness is based on firstly diagnosing and then finding the right treatment for the mental disorder. Yet in order to truly diagnose and understand what treatment may help, we must first understand the brain processes underlying psychiatric disorders.

Though knowledge of brain processes has significantly increased during the last decade, we are still left with more questions than answers. How does mental illness arise? What are the processes involved in our brain that may lead to mental illness? How do our past experiences – our learning and memory – shape and change our brain’s activity? How does this influence our perception of the environment and our resulting behavior?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) opens up new doors to help us answer these huge questions. Driven by the boom in Big Data, the medical industry now has at its fingertips access to vast amounts of new data – not only clinical but a whole array of information from demographic to our social journey.

Imagine if we could collect and analyze all this data with AI! We could understand the patient experience throughout their lifespan, and understand the neural circuits that may be most active within their brain. This will allow us to have a whole new level of understanding into psychiatric disorders and a new treatment approach!

I welcome you to join me in my coming blog series as we aim to provide new insight into these complex brain mechanisms. And how, by using AI, we can develop new solutions to better understand, treat and cure mental illness!

So let me explain more.

Our behavior is shaped by our perception of our unique environment

In order to understand how our experience shapes our perception of the environment in psychiatric disorders, we must first understand what is our brain’s fundamental purpose. The answer survival.

In my last blog, I discussed how psychiatric disorders may be a result of our survival mechanisms – our organisms need to live versus our species need to procreate – going out of balance. Potentially the exaggerated behaviors we see during depression, for example staying in our bed and not leaving our house, may be a strengthened organism’s survival mechanism? The survival mechanism of our species, to socialize, meet new people and procreate, has been weakened. Food for thought!

It is these survival mechanisms that drive our behavioral response to our ever-evolving environment. Yet, within this complex picture, we must understand that our behavioral response is shaped by our perception of our environment – the way we see reality and the world around us!

In psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, our perception of the environment may differ from the expected in certain situations, resulting in our brain responding in a different way.

To understand how this may happen – what drives our differing perception and resulting behavior – we must look at the brain’s most fundamental function – learning and memory. The brain’s networks formed and continually changing, as a result of our unique experience shaped in response to our environment.

Disordered learning and memory may play a key role in psychiatric disorders

In psychiatric disorders, we can hypothesize that our brain’s neural networks may function differently than expected, in shaping our perception of our environment.

When we learn, the synaptic connections between our neurons change over time, strengthening or weakening, in response to increases or decreases in their activity. For example, the more signals sent between two neurons, the stronger the connection grows.

With each new experience and each remembered event, the brain slightly re-wires its physical structure to form a neural network, which represents this experience. For instance, changes in the number of neurotransmitter receptors at synapses, the quantity of neurotransmitters released, etc., controls the strength of neuronal activity.

Let us now look for example at someone who may suffer from depression. Research tells us that difficult life circumstances, stress, grief, certain medical conditions, as well as genetic predispositions and hormonal changes may contribute to the onset of depression. At is simplest level; our unique life experience will shape the neural networks which represent the way we perceive our environment. As long as there is no external stimulus perceived by our brain, these neural networks will keep activating themselves in an internal loop.

In depression, we can postulate that there may be a dysfunction in how the internal environment of our brain perceives the external environment that results in psychiatric disorders.  

So what do I mean?

A dysfunction in the way we process sensory information may contribute to psychiatric disorders

When we look at our external environment, we see that neuronal circuits may be activated in response to:

  • external body factors such as sensory changes from touch, pain, sight, smell, taste, hearing, or
  • internal body factors such as detected changes in the state of our internal conditions from homeostatic imbalances (e.g. temperature and chemical changes) and blood pressure.

In essence, a change in an external stimulus (anything outside of the brain), such as noise or blood pressure, triggers our internal brain’s neural networks to communicate with each other through “action potentials” or electrical events. This then activates new neuronal circuits, which create a new representation of our environment.

At the neuronal level, an action potential causes neuron A to release a chemical neurotransmitter to either help (excite) or hinder (inhibit) neuron/s B from firing its own action potential. In the brain, the balance of hundreds of excitatory and inhibitory inputs to a neuron determines whether an action potential – a communication between neurons – will result.

The activation of these new circuits leads to a predictive response in our brain, which leads to a behavioral outcome. This predictive response is based on our previous experience (memory) – the complex integration of previously strengthened neuronal networks.

Those behavioral outcomes that are important to our organism or species are rewarded by strengthening of the neuronal networks representing them. For example, the feeling of joy and satisfaction we have when engaging in social activities or accomplishing a task is an important representation of reinforcement for activity with a desired outcome. Repeating these kind of behaviors are vital for our organism and species survival and reproductive success.

Each time our brain receives input from environmental cues (external sensory information) activating new neuronal networks, our brain has new opportunities to receive rewards. These are then displayed in our behavioral activity to gain a reward.

The way our internal brain’s neural networks organize, identify and interpret these environmental cues, through the strengthening or weakening of neuronal circuits, defines our perception of the world we live in. 

So what is happening in a patient suffering from depression? 

Symptoms of depression include fatigue, isolation, loss of interest in things once pleasurable, including sex, to name a few. Patients do not seem to perceive the rewards from their external environment that one would expect.

Potentially, there may be a dysfunction in the way our internal brain perceives the reward in our external environment, and also in its ability to process this external environment effectively.

Though environmental cues are flowing in – they decay, as our internal neuronal circuits are so strong that they prevent the creation of new, potentially rewarding circuits to form.

For instance, we would expect a mother when seeing her child to feel happiness. We would anticipate that environmental cues would activate new neuronal networks, which would reinforce behavioral activity that leads to the reward of feeling pleasure and enjoyment. However, in depression, mothers may lose this feeling of happiness. They may know that they should feel this way, but are simply not able to feel the happiness reward.

In depression, we can hypothesize that patients are “stuck” in this reward less ongoing internal circuit. 

Our brain’s neuronal networks are unable to generate a predictive response that leads to a rewarding behavioral response.  Instead, our ability to change our response to our environment – our phenotypic response – has become inactivated.

For a mother suffering from depression, though she may have new opportunities to feel enjoyment from her daughter, her internal brain networks are “stuck” in this internal cycle. They are unable to form new rewarding circuits that would result in the behavior of happiness.

This may lead patients to become disconnected from their environment resulting in the isolating response we see, and as the cycle continues, it may lead to a complete loss in the meaning of life.

Antidepressant medications may help activate new neuronal networks, which may eventually lead to a better perception of our external environment, and eventually to new rewards.

If we could understand which internal neural networks are mainly activated within this mother’s brain, we could prescribe the best medication to cure her depression.

AI provides us with the possibility to cure psychiatric disorders.

We can use AI to understand and influence our internal brain environment to cure psychiatric disorders.

Imagine if we were able to collect and analyze a person’s medical history, genetic data, demographic information, gender, ethnicity, age exposed to traumatic event, social information – their complete life footprint. We would have at our fingertips, a complete new level of understanding into this person’s internal neural networks.

Using AI, we could use this information to help us understand and predict which internal circuits are strongly activated within the brain. 

With this new understanding, we could then direct proper treatment to allow the activation of new, rewarding circuits to form.  We would have the key to unlock the door within the brain – enabling patients suffering from mental illness to reconnect with their external environment.

The boom in digital big data, AI-driven solutions and advancing brain research, may make this happen much sooner than you might expect.

At Taliaz, this is in essence our vision and the foundations of our holistic-scientific approach: To combine genetic data with the ever-growing information from the external environment to build advanced prediction algorithms that personalize treatments for patients.

We are of course only at the beginning of our journey, yet the possibilities with our Predictix algorithm are vast.

With new breakthroughs happening all the time in this exciting area – visionary ideas may soon become reality.

Join me in my next blog where I will explore ways we could target treatments to allow the activation of these new circuits to personalize treatment of psychiatric disorders.

Until next time! Dekel