Models for understanding brain and behavioural development

Why do people develop in different ways? What determines whether they respond to stress by becoming depressed? Why do some people remain mentally alert even in old age, while others suffer from dementia? Empirical advances in neural and behavioural sciences may increase our understanding of the causes of these and other developmental differences, but this will only be the case if the tools of theory development keep step with the empirical advances. This is why the Max Planck Society and University College London have decided to pool their expertise in the field of neural and behavioural science in a joint research centre. They aim to gain a better understanding of the causes of mental illness and the diversity of mental development in adulthood. Brain and behavioural development will be linked at an individual level using computer models, which should enable accurate description of individual differences, early detection of disorders, and have a positive influence on clinical courses.

In many cases, there is no successful treatment today for mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and autism. Some important molecular and structural changes are known, but just how they are related to the behaviour remains rather unclear. The connections between age-related brain and behavioural changes are also inadequately understood. Researchers have learned much about how the brain works using procedures such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but specific modelling will be required in order to bridge the information gap between molecular processes and behaviour. Models can be used to link data from different levels on a theoretical basis, thereby allowing scientists to recreate neural networks on the computer and then use the model to examine when behaviour-related neural processes work well, and when and how they are disrupted.

A shared feature of both mental illnesses and aging processes is that they affect different organizational levels in the brain, from genes produced by protein synthesis, to neurons and neural networks. During the course of adult life, for example, changes occur in the release of neurotransmitters and in the anatomy and functioning of the brain, although the type and extent of these changes differ from person to person. The course of mental illnesses also varies for each individual, and the established psychiatric classifications are often unable to deal with these differences.

The researchers at the Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research will use statistical methods and computer models to correlate data on brain structure and function with detailed behavioural observations on individual subjects, and use this to generate prognoses. It is hoped that their discoveries will provide information on how to preserve mental capacity for as long as possible in old age and how to prevent or at least positively influence the course of mental illnesses.


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