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Treating psychiatric disorders Using AI to better understand the brain

Dekel Taliaz



October, 2020//


Our brain’s fundamental purpose is to survive – to navigate the survival mechanisms of longevity for our organism, and procreation for our species. Psychiatric disorders may be a result of these survival mechanisms going out of balance, leading to exaggerated behaviors. This behavioral response is driven by our brain’s flexibility to learn and adapt to our ever-evolving environment. Imagine if we could model these complex learning associations... AI provides us with a tool to do just that and vastly improve mental illness treatments.  Let me explain more.


Mental illness affects one in four of us and is a growing burden to society. To tackle this growing healthcare need, we need to develop and use new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), to help us network the brain’s capabilities.

Obviously, mental illness is a brain disorder, and to understand it better, we need to better understand the brain. Yet, the brain is our most complex organ, and in order to appreciate its intricacies, we must look at the holistic picture – what is its purpose? How does the environment we live in impact our brain? 


To do this, we must first understand our brains drive to survive and the mechanisms governing this innate response. We must then realize the role of our ever-changing environment on both learning and behavior, and the part it plays in shaping alterations in our survival mechanisms that may drive the development of mental illness.

Only by being able to navigate our brain’s complex learning and behavioral associations, will we truly be able to develop new solutions for psychiatric disorders. AI-driven tools enable us to model these complex learning associations, to go beyond what our own brain could ever envisage, to deliver the promise of vastly improved treatment approaches.

So what do I mean?


The brain’s role in governing our organism and species survival


Our survival is an evolutionary need. Consider at the time of evolution that there may have been various organism combinations of one species. For example:

·      One that feels the need to live.

·      One that is indifferent to life or death.

·      One that deliberately puts itself into harm's way.

In this scenario, it is clear that the one with the will to live –– will have a higher chance of survival. This is survival at the organism level. 

Now, let’s look at another scenario of various organism combinations of one species:

·      One that feels the need to reproduce.

·      One that is indifferent to reproduction.

·      One that deliberately avoids reproduction.

In this scenario, it is clear that the one with the will to propagate –– will provide a greater chance for its species to survive. This is survival at the species level.

Without this further drive to propagate our genes to the next generation, our species may become extinct.

It is the role of our brain and our nervous system, to make sure that these two survival mechanisms actually happen. Our brain’s survival mechanism is in essence biological and physiological programs designed to enhance survivability of our physical unit, as well as the survival of our species.

Our survival mechanisms are functions, which are triggered when environmental conditions activate different responses. For example, a function could be a biological response (for example our blood vessels dilate), a motor response (i.e. we start running) or an emotional response (such as fear). It is the unique combination of these functions and the order of their activation alongside changing environmental conditions that govern the nature of the biological or physiological program called on by our brain and nervous system. 


However, these two survival mechanisms aren’t always symbiotic and can be conflicting in nature. 


The conflicting role of our organism and species survival mechanism


On the one hand, our brain is designed for self-preservation – the behavior that ensures the survival of our physical self. On the other hand, our brain’s purpose is the survival of our species – the need to procreate and expand our genetic pool. 

At its simplest level, we can understand these survival mechanisms by exploring an organisms’ and species’ goals, through the perspective of their risk-taking behaviors. This of course will evolve and is determined by the ever-changing environment. 


For example, if you had enough nutrients, warmth and shelter, your physical self could survive until most likely a ripe old age. Your organism survival mechanism would be pushing you to never leave this safe environment. However, your brain is also governed by your species survival – at its fundamental level – the need to spread your genetic code – to leave this safe environment, risk danger and find your mate. This genetic evolution – the expansion of our genetic pool to correct genetic mutations – will ensure the survival of our species.


This is of course a highly over simplified example and the opposite behavior can also occur. For example, in some cases it may be safer to procreate than to seek food.

It is the role of our brain and nervous system to navigate between these two kinds of survival mechanisms to ensure our organism and species survival. 

Yet the brain is highly challenged. In many cases, these two survival goals conflict. 

For example, to find a mate and procreate to ensure our species survival, means we must push our organism from safety into individual danger. Similarly, the role of a mother in guarding her eggs and children. Though this is essential to ensure the continuation of her species, this is directly against her individual survival instinct to find food and get enough sleep.  

To achieve our ultimate survival, our brain works through a controlled loop to navigate our many different systems.   It could be the breakages in these controlled loops that lead to the formation of psychiatric disorders. 


So what do I mean?


Psychiatric disorders may be a result of normal brain mechanisms going imbalanced 


When we consider someone suffering from the devastating condition of depression – we see they exhibit exaggerated behavior – in fact some of these behaviors are very similar to our brain’s drive governing the survival mechanism of an organism. 

Alongside suffering from extreme sadness, frustration and feelings of helplessness, many depressed patients present symptoms of extreme fatigue, lack of a sex drive and exhibit low motivation – with patients often struggling to leave their bed in the morning. 

Yet, if we consider this behavior through the perspective of our organism’s survival mechanism only – the survival of our physical self – is it in fact that strange?

Take bears for example, who hibernate during the winter in order to save energy when food is no longer easily attainable. This specific behavior is to encourage the survival of their physical self as long as possible. Over time, the bear’s brains have adopted specific survival mechanisms, which are essential for survival in the environment they live in.


Is it possible that this extreme hibernation behavior is highly pronounced in patients suffering from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons? During the cold winter months, they have no drive to leave the safe environment of their home or procreate as the driving survival mechanism is now our organism (physical self). Our opposing species survival mechanism – to leave their safe environment and find a mate – is no longer in balance. 

Therefore, to understand psychiatric disorders, we must first investigate how our brain navigates between these two survival mechanisms. And within this complex story, we must understand the role of the environment in activating our genetic codes which govern the balance in our survival mechanisms and our associated behavioral response.


Our brain must rewire itself in response to an ever-evolving environment


We live in a world that is constantly changing – so our brain must learn to survive. In other words, acquire skills and alter behavior as a result of experience, to adapt to this ever-changing environment to ensure our survival.  

To do this, our brain must have the ability to rewire itself, to modify its connections in response to a changing environment – this is known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity (from the Greek word ‘plastos’ meaning molded). 


For example, if the environment we lived in was fixed, our brain would have no need to learn as it would always give a specific response. Therefore, without the extraordinary ability of brain plasticity, any nervous system, not just the human brain, would be unable to develop from infancy through to adulthood. 


It is clear to deliver the promise of new AI-driven treatments for psychiatric disorders; we must understand brain plasticity and these learning associations.


Brain plasticity is stored through learning and memory


We define memory as a behavioral change caused by an experience, and define learning as a process for acquiring new associations, which may be eventually translated into memories. 

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed, and then simply faded. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning. Plasticity is the capacity of our brain to change with learning.


Changes associated with learning are thought to occur at the level of our neurons (nerve cells). It is believed that changes in the efficacy of synapses, where neurons communicate, within vastly interconnected neural circuits, may mediate the storage of information acquired during learning.  At its simplest level, as we learn, we grow new brain fibers that contain many neurons for each select memory. 

If we could model our brain’s plasticity – these environmentally driven, complex learning and behavioral associations which govern the balance in our survival mechanisms and associated behavior – we could open up new treatment approaches to psychiatric disorders. 

We could better understand and treat how during psychiatric disorders, our brain’s survival mechanisms may go out of balance leading to exaggerated behaviors.


We can use AI to model our learning and behavior


Twenty years ago, these types of theoretical, extraordinarily complex analyzes would have seemed unimaginable to develop in practice. 

Yet, AI provides us with a tool to do just that. We now have the capabilities to learn these complex associations.


By exploring and understanding our brain’s fundamental purpose – its supervisory capacity to keep a delicate balance between its organism and species survival mechanisms – we can better understand psychiatric disorder behaviors. We can teach AI to analyze, explore and model these multifaceted learning and memory associations, using our basic survival assumptions, with the promise of vastly improved treatments. 

Yet, we must not exclude the role of our ever-changing environment in our AI-based models. 

As the key driver in shaping brain plasticity, and by that, our learning and memory associations, which govern our associated behavioral response, we must take a combinatorial approach when developing AI prediction algorithms.


This is the cornerstone of our holistic-scientific approach at Taliaz in using AI to innovate new personalized treatments for mental illness. The premise that learning and memory is determined by the intertwined nature of our biology and our ever-evolving environment. Our genetics is important, but without understanding our wider environment and its continuing influence on our brain’s ability to store memory and learn, we will never truly be able to cure many psychiatric disorders.


Until next time, Dekel