Mass Spectrometry & Spectroscopy

What Causes Depression? - Computational Psychiatrists Try to Find Out

Jan 01 2018 Comments 0

It's common knowledge that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. But beyond this, very little is known about what actually triggers the illness. Now, a team of scientists is breaking ground with a computer model that offers new insight into the blues.

According to the team of British computational psychiatrists, people suffering from depression tend to focus on negative aspects of their life, because they perceive them as better learning experiences. They've supported this theory with a unique software program designed to mimic the human brain and its decision-making process.

Proving the brain prioritises negative outcomes

The study was published in the journal eLife and led by Michael Browning and Erdem Pulcu, a pair of computational psychiatrists from the University of Oxford. They started by instructing participants to complete a simple shape-choosing task. The goal was to prove that the human brain learns more when events have negative outcomes.

They also explored the human tendency to process good and bad events in a different light. Browning and Pulcu maintain that people actively judge how "informative" positive and negative outcomes are, which can in turn bias the brain's belief system. Ultimately, they set out to prove that people suffering from depression tend to focus on negative thoughts as the brain perceives them as more useful learning experiences.

Modelling the human brain

The study sat participants in front of a computer and asked them to choose between two shapes. Choosing one shape would earn them money, while the other would deplete their savings. Browning and Pulcu designed the model with variable outcomes, which meant that the chance of a positive or negative result could change unexpectedly.

They then developed a mathematical computer model designed to imitate the behaviours and responses of humans. This offered a unique glimpse at the mechanics of the human brain, and why it can often switch into default negativity.  

“We can use these estimates to see how much people learn specifically from wins and losses and how quickly they learn how important wins and losses are,” explains Browning. “The computer describes the whole process that is going on in the person's brain.”

Unravelling the causes of depression and anxiety

Browning maintains that in-depth knowledge of why humans often pay more attention to negative "learning experiences" could be used to help understand the exact causes of depression and anxiety.

“This study shows that maybe people with depression focus on the negative things in the world because they believe that they hold more information, which would make focusing on them the logical thing to do,” he adds.

He goes on to suggest that learning perceptions could be influenced by the noradrenaline system, which has sparked the idea that noradrenaline drugs could emerge as a revolutionary new treatment. Currently drugs play a pivotal role in managing depression and anxiety. For a closer look at the latest industry developments don't miss 'Pushing the Limits of Speed and Sensitivity in Drug Screening – an LC-MS solution.'

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January 2018

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