An abstraction of a brain with numbers

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute hosts conference on computational psychiatry

More than 70 scientists from around the world and from a range of intellectual traditions will convene in Miami this week for what is believed to be the nation’s first conference on computational psychiatry, an emerging field in neuroscience. Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Computational Psychiatry 2013 will take place October 22–23 at the EPIC Hotel.

“Human cognition breaks down under a variety of conditions and for diverse and often subtle reasons,” said Read Montague, director of the institute’s Computational Psychiatry Unit and the principal organizer of the conference. “Computational psychiatry seeks to use computational theories of cognition and neuroscience to build models of mental illness and injury. With these models, we hope to complement clinicians’ efforts to diagnosis symptoms of mental dysfunction.”

The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as one in three people worldwide meet criteria for a mental disorder or brain condition at some point in their lives.

“Increasingly, people are finding that traditional psychiatric categories are useful yet incomplete,” said Montague, who delivered a TEDGlobal talk on computational psychiatry in 2012. “With this new lexicon we’re developing, we can depict healthy cognition in terms of computations, and diseased cognition in terms of changes in those computations.”

Montague pointed out that the field of computational psychiatry is not restricted to traditional scientific or clinical boundaries, but draws from an array of traditions, including clinical psychiatry, neuroscience, computer science, and decision science.

The presenters at Computational Psychiatry 2013 represent a range of disciplines. Among the speakers will be a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Steven Hyman, now director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, will deliver the opening plenary address, “Schizophrenia Begins to Yield Its Secrets: The Importance of Unbiased Large-Scale Approaches to Psychopathology.”

Peter Fonagy, a world expert on personality disorders, will present the second-day plenary address, “Clinical Disorders of the Mind and the Rising Role of Computation.” Fonagy is the Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis and head of the Research Department of Clinical, Educational, and Health Psychology at University College London.

Also among the nearly two dozen presenters are Montague’s conference co-organizers, Peter Dayan, director of the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London, and Michael Frank, an associate professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University.

“Computational psychiatry represents a truly multidisciplinary, perhaps even revolutionary approach to mental illness,” said Montague, who is also a professor of physics at Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “Our hope is to one day enable greater precision in psychiatric diagnosis and treatment, to help ameliorate the suffering of millions worldwide.”