The Mind-Brain Connection: An Interview with Andrew J. Gerber, MD, PhD, Medical Director/CEO, Part 2
We continue our conversation with Dr. Gerber about the mind-brain connection, particularly as it relates to the 2018 Erikson Institute Fall Conference, Duality’s End: Computational Psychiatry and the Neuroscience of Representation, September 29-30, 2018.
Q: How does the mind-brain connection relate to your own research and to the topic of the Erikson Institute Fall Conference in September, 2018?
AJG: I think we’re at an exciting time in the field. If you look at the development of technologies from the end of the 1990s into the 2000s, there are a number of extremely exciting things happening. The one that's probably best-known is in genomics–we have the ability now to analyze the genetic code in ways that were really unthinkable just 20 years ago, and we can do that at the individual level and learn about the enormous variability between individuals.
Second, we have the ability now, mostly through magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to look at a live functioning brain in real-time–that is, while a person is thinking or deciding. We are able to see, to a reasonably good degree of accuracy, which parts of the brain are more or less active. This is a tremendous technique that just 30 years ago would have been almost unthinkable.
Third, there is an awareness in our culture of the burden of mental illness, even as most medical illnesses are on a steady trajectory to being less of a burden. Whether it's cancer or infectious disease or even heart disease and stroke, we are making continuous and steady strides to improve treatment and to improve prevention. But at the very same time, we have not made an appreciable impact on mental illness in terms of its treatment or prevention. If anything, we're seeing the rates of suicide, one of the most catastrophic consequences of mental illness, rising for reasons we don’t fully understand.
To me, it is now a societal necessity to use these new scientific techniques to better understand and ultimately to prevent and treat mental illness. The problem is that the paradigms for how to do so go back in many ways to the mind-brain split. What I hope my research can do and what I hope to do here at Riggs is start to build some of both the practical and theoretical infrastructure for addressing that mind-brain split around the question of mental illness. And so that really leads to the topic of the Fall Conference in 2018: Duality’s End: Computational Psychiatry and the Neuroscience of Representation, on September 29-30, 2018.
We want to bring together two strands within science. One strand that has gotten increasing publicity recently is computational psychiatry. It's a relatively new term, but it stands for the idea that we can use computational methods (e.g., systematic mathematically based models) to understand the processes that go on in the brain that lead to mental illness and problematic behaviors. The areas of growth in that area are in genomics, imaging, and in measuring behavior using new technologies and wearables. The second strand is what I would call mental contents: What is the nature of the way we represent the world? How do we take in information about the world? In the neuroscience world, that's called the neuroscience of representation. That is, how do we represent what we see and experience out in the world visually, through hearing, through touch? How do we represent that as information in the mind/brain?
The task of the conference is to bring together experts in computational psychiatry and in the neuroscience of representation, two groups that have worked separately until now. I believe that by bringing them together for the first time in a single conference, they can learn from each other. For example, how can computational psychiatry incorporate the concept of representation to really understand the development of, and ultimately the treatment of, mental illness? At the same time, how can those focused on representation apply what they know about how we represent knowledge to understand how that affects the functioning of the mind and ultimately how it goes wrong in people who suffer?
I think there's a wonderful historical precedent for the Austen Riggs Center as this kind of convener. If you go back into our history in the 1950s and 1960s, we had a premier cognitive science research group at Riggs led by David Rapaport who came from the Menninger Clinic. He was putting together a metapsychology of mental illness using the best techniques he had available at the time, which was largely paper-and-pencil tests, including things like the Rorschach. He attempted to assemble a theory of mental illness that then fed the treatment at Riggs. I believe that if he were alive today, this is exactly the kind of research he and his team would be doing, and the kind of conference he would host here.