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Computational Psychiatry: Is Mathematics the Cure for Madness?

Can a mental disorder be calculated? Can any disorder be put into numbers at all? It’s certainly hard to imagine, without understanding some of the major functions of the brain. The human brain performs functions which are of a computational nature. Therefore, some scientists claim, a computational approach is needed to understand disorders of the brain function better — particularly psychiatric ones, where biological disturbances are extremely subtle and hard to track. 

The young field of computational psychiatry attempts a new, improved understanding, prognosis, and treatment of mental illness. It’s an interdisciplinary field, which includes psychiatry, experimental and clinical psychology, neuroscience, machine learning, artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience. The combination of those results in two types of approaches: gathering data topically and attempting to build mathematical or computational models of the relevant neural, circuit, or cognitive processes.

Those who are new to the field are often intimidated by the need to gain understanding of both mental health and formal methods. The teaching programs rarely include everything at once. Is mathematics really necessary to treat patients? And which mental health symptoms should be the main objects for formal study?

The fairly new book Computational Psychiatry: A Primer, authored by Janine Simmons, Brice Cuthbert, Joshua Gordon and Michele Ferrante from the US National Institute of Mental Health, brings new insight into the field. Until now, when approaching computational psychiatry, students who were interested in the field needed to acquire expertise in various areas, but each of them separately: maths, machine learning, computational neuroscience, reinforcement learning, psychotherapy, psychiatry, neuroscience. It’s a long list and, rightfully, put students off. 

The beginning of Computational Psychiatry: A Primer has a broad introduction, which is followed by chapters with more details on the current state of computational understanding of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, addiction and tic disorders. They give a focused and resourceful overview of the recent history of psychiatry.

Among the most important computational methods are highlighted: Lapicque’s integrate-and-fire model of neurons, Rall’s cable theory, Hodgkin and Huxley’s description of action potentials, Hebb’s plasticity rules, and Barlow’s information theoretical characterization of sensory adaptation to today’s models of reinforcement learning and neural networks. 

The book also provides a tour through the main theoretical approaches, identifying the key formalisms and outlining their applications; in-depth reviews of biophysically based neural network models, cognitive control, and reinforcement learning as applied to issues in mental health; explanations of how dynamical models enable cellular-level processes to be related to high-level phenomena, for instance, how alterations in receptor dynamics affect working memory. “The book has many strengths,” says Quentin J.M. Huys in a 2022 review of Computational Psychiatry, “and much to like. It should become a useful and approachable, hence important, introductory text to those interested in the field.”

It is expected that this field will likely substantially advance psychiatry in the near future. However, there is a downside to it. The data-driven approaches are limited in their ability to fully capture the complexities of interacting variables in and across multiple levels. On the other hand, theory-driven approaches are yet to be applied to clinical problems.

Even though the treatment outcomes appear to be very promising, the computational tools have a number of limitations too: they require substantial expertise of a trained user. Another major challenge is generating a fruitful exchange between clinicians, experimentalists, trialists and theorists. This, says Huys in the article Computational psychiatry as a bridge from neuroscience to clinical applications from March 2016, “might be helped by a stronger focus on establishing utility by actively pursuing computational approaches in clinical trials.”

Overall, there are many standard clinical and theoretical boundaries still, and their integration remains untested at large, but computational psychiatry opens up many new opportunities to gain insight into mental illness, and ultimately, promises better outcomes for patients.

Are Robobees The Artificial Pollinators of the Future?

Can technology offer a solution to our growing biodiversity crisis? And are robot bees the future of agriculture?

Not too long ago, a mysterious affliction called colony collapse disorder (CCD) began to wipe out honeybee hives, informs Juliet Ferguson in her article Beyond robobees: can technology really help halt the biodiversity crisis? from July 2022. “These bees are responsible for most commercial pollination [in the U.S.], and their loss provoked fears that agriculture might begin to suffer as well.”

Often, we see scientific articles about the arrival of the robobees, describing a darker future where drones, instead of real insects, do the pollinating. The so-called BrambleBee, which pollinates plants using a robotic arm, was developed in 2018 by the University of West Virginia, US. An Israeli tech company, named Arugga, commercialised a bee-like robot able to pollinate in tomato greenhouses. This robot is also set to work in Finland, where the long dark winter days make it hard for bees to pollinate crops. This ‘bee’ will not only do the hard work but also collect plant health data, helping farmers to come up with better treatment.

More recently, both the University of Stirling in Scotland, and the University of Massachusetts, USA, have received funding to build tiny robots that can reproduce bees. In an Investigate Europe interview, Dr. Mario Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, said, “We’re not looking for a mechanical way to replace what thousands of bee species around the world do.” The goal, he clarified, is “to understand why it is important to conserve different types of bees.”

The conservation of bees has been a growing concern which has gathered wide popularity. According to the UN, almost three-quarters of the world’s most essential food crops are pollinated by bees, but numbers are falling as industrial agriculture expands and rampant pesticide use persists. It is estimated that nearly one in 10 wild bee species face extinction in Europe, while European beekeepers warn the colony numbers have declined over the last decade and a half.

Biology Professor at the University of Sussex Dave Goulson, agrees with Vallejo-Marin that the robotic bees can never be a good replacement for real bees. “The biggest thing that insects do is actually not pollination, but recycling,” he says. “They recycle any kind of dead material: something which a robobee wouldn’t do.”

The world will need trillions of robobees to replace all natural pollinators, according to Alan Dorin of Monash University in Australia. This is an unrealistic and economically impossible process.

Critics argue that it’s not only the diversity of plants, birds and insects that is threatened by today’s agricultural system, but also the farmers themselves. It’s reported that farmers become less and less in numbers as they have less and less profits. “We see that our rural areas are under threat,” says Green MEP Bas Eickhout. “The impact of climate change is affecting our farmers and we see the loss of biodiversity.”

As hopeful as the robobee technology may sound, there are many drawbacks to it. In his article The Problem With Robobees from December 2020, Alan Dorin points out several reasons why the swarms of tiny bee robots would be an ecological disaster. He reminds that the world will need “an uncomfortable number of robobess to replicate the already existing insects’ pollination benefits.” Other issues include the fact that this technology would cost a lot of money and only wealthy growers will be able to afford them. The manufacture of robobees is also, as Dorin says “environmentally damaging” as broken or damaged specimens will litter and pollute wildlife and so far, are not built as biodegradable or recyclable.

Technology like the robobees is expected to be of great help, hypothetically, but it is just a small part in the pressing need for a change in the system and it is certainly not a full replacement of what nature has been doing for millions of years and keeps doing. That’s why, Dorin adds, “instead of designing robobees, creating environments friendly to biological bees and exploring the use of other insect species for pollination are more ecologically sound approaches to tackling world food production problems.” This doesn’t mean humanity has to do away with technology altogether. It just means it has to support insects and the ecosystems they exist in. Not replace it. Nothing the human mind can create could replace the perfect clockwork of nature as it is.

Can we create Artificial Gravity?

The true nature and mechanism of gravity has been of deep interest to humanity ever since the ancient world, and it continues to fascinate us well into our 21st century. However, the essence of gravity is still very much elusive. Particularly, when it comes to its exact structure, there are many theories, but unfortunately, not as many proofs.

Professor André Fuzfa, in his 2015 article How Current Loops and Solenoids Curve Space-time, reminds of the concept of curvature in general relativity, which describes how massive objects, such as stars and planets, create a curvature in the fabric of spacetime. This curvature—or gravity—affects the motion of other objects, causing them to move in a curved path around the massive object.

One of the main hypotheses is about the existence of the graviton: a quantum of gravity, an elementary particle that mediates gravitational interaction. While gravitational waves have been observed, gravitons have not yet been directly detected. And gravitational waves, explains scientist Yin Zhu in his article Observation of Graviton and Ways to Manipulate Gravitational Field from 2016, are ripples in the fabric of spacetime that are created when massive objects move or accelerate. These waves can be detected using instruments, such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo detector.

The existence of gravitons is predicted by the theory of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of particles at a subatomic level. According to this theory, gravitons are massless particles that have a spin of 2. They are thought to interact with other particles through the force of gravity. Currently, there are no experimental techniques available that can directly detect gravitons. However, scientists are actively searching for indirect evidence of their existence by studying the behavior of gravitational waves and their sources.

The gravitational field is the region of space around a massive object in which other objects experience a force of attraction. The strength of the gravitational field depends on the mass and distance of the object. Here are some ways in which the gravitational field can be manipulated:

  • First: mass manipulation. (It’s less evil than it sounds.) The strength of the gravitational field is directly proportional to the mass of the object. Therefore, by manipulating the mass of an object, it is possible to manipulate its gravitational field. This can be achieved through techniques such as adding or removing mass, changing the density of an object, or altering its shape.
  • Gravity Shielding! Gravity shielding is a hypothetical technique that involves creating a material or field that can shield objects from the effects of gravity. This could potentially be achieved through the use of exotic materials or through the manipulation of gravitational fields. Said exotic material will probably have to be very exotic. As in, outside-of-the-Solar-System exotic. So far we don’t have a material that allows this to happen.
  • Gravity Manipulation. Basically, something like science telekinesis. Gravity manipulation is a hypothetical technique that involves manipulating the strength and direction of the gravitational field. This could potentially be achieved through the use of advanced technology or through the manipulation of gravitational fields.
  • Last but not least: gravitational lensing. In the words of Dr. Themiya Nanayakkara, Chief Scientist of the James Webb Australian Data Centre, from the 2022 article What is gravitational lensing and how can the James Webb Telescope use it?: ‘Say there is a collection of massive galaxies close to each other; i.e. a galaxy cluster. What will happen is because the collective mass here is very big, it will create a bend in space around that—a similar effect can be observed on a bed mattress when you put a heavy ball on it. So when light from a background galaxy passes through this area, the path it has to travel gets curved. This results in elongated images of background galaxies.’ This can be used to magnify distant objects or to create an optical illusion of multiple images of the same object, but it can also be useful when attempting to manipulate gravity.

The manipulation of gravitational fields is a complex and challenging area of research that requires advanced technology and a deeper understanding of the nature of gravity than we have for now. What’s more, the graviton may provide a pathway towards a quantum theory of gravity and a unified description of the fundamental forces, while also shedding light on the nature of dark matter and dark energy. While some progress has been made in this area, much more research is needed to fully understand the possibilities and limitations of this field.

Bioluminescence: Application in Biotechnology

Bioluminescence has been fascinating to humanity for as long as we can remember, and it has certainly inspired many scientists and non-scientists alike over the last decades.

Bioluminescence is the emission of light by living organisms. This natural phenomenon has been explored mainly in the young field of synthetic biology, and it is a natural phenomenon found in many organisms, including bacteria, fungi, insects, and fish. In the 2021 article Applications of Bioluminescence in Biotechnology and Beyond by Aisha J. Syed and James C. Anderson, they share an overview of the basic mechanism of bioluminescence, in which an enzyme called luciferase catalyzes the oxidation of a substrate molecule called luciferin, and this results in the production of light.

In Bioluminescence: Fundamentals and Applications in Biotechnology (Volume 2), scientists Benjamin Reeve, Theo Sanderson, Tom Ellis and Paul Freemont explain that ‘the natural bioluminescent world includes such varied creatures as beetles, fungi, plankton, and bacteria. To the synthetic biologist, this is an archive from which enzymes with desired properties can be selected.’

Bioluminescence has had many uses, but among the most prominent ones are biomedical research, environmental monitoring, biotechnology, the food industry and forensic science.

First, in medical research, bioluminescence is used as a tool for visualizing biological processes in living organisms as well as medical diagnostics. It helps researchers monitor the activity of specific genes or track the spread of diseases. Bioluminescent imaging techniques can be used to detect cancerous tumors and monitor their growth in real-time.

Within environmental monitoring, bioluminescent bacteria are used to detect toxins in environmental samples. The bacteria produce light in response to the presence of specific molecules, such as pollutants, allowing researchers to detect and quantify them.

With biotechnology, bioluminescence has been used to create biosensors for detecting specific molecules in biological samples. These biosensors are highly sensitive and specific, allowing for rapid and accurate detection of target molecules.

In the food industry, bioluminescence has been used to detect bacterial contamination in food products. The bioluminescent bacteria are engineered to produce light in response to the presence of specific pathogens, allowing for rapid detection and prevention of foodborne illnesses.

And last but not least, in forensic science, bioluminescence has been used to detect trace amounts of blood and other biological fluids at crime scenes. The bioluminescent reaction is highly sensitive and can detect infinitesimal amounts of biological material.

There are a lot more uses to this phenomenon, but one of my personal favorites is its promising use in botany. Bioluminescent trees are a new and exciting field of research that involves engineering trees to produce their own light through bioluminescence. The goal of this scientific experiment is for this research to create sustainable sources of lighting that are environmentally friendly and do not require electricity.

The bioluminescence in trees is created through the same mechanism as in other bioluminescent organisms. The trees are genetically modified to produce a luciferase enzyme, which catalyzes the oxidation of a luciferin molecule, producing light. The light produced by the trees is not bright enough to illuminate an entire room, but it could provide a soft, ambient glow that could be used for outdoor lighting or decorative purposes.

One of the primary motivations for developing bioluminescent trees is to create sustainable sources of lighting that do not contribute to climate change. Traditional sources of lighting, such as incandescent bulbs or fluorescent lights, require large amounts of energy and produce greenhouse gases when they are manufactured and used. Bioluminescent trees, on the other hand, do not require any external energy source and are carbon-neutral. 

Another potential application of bioluminescent trees is in the field of urban forestry. Trees are important components of urban ecosystems, providing numerous benefits, such as improving air quality, reducing heat island effects, and supporting biodiversity. By engineering trees to produce their own light, it may be possible to enhance the aesthetic appeal of urban forests while also providing additional benefits such as increased safety and visibility at night.

However, it is important to note that the development of bioluminescent trees is still in its early stages, and there are many technical and regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome before they can become a practical reality. Nonetheless, the potential benefits of bioluminescent trees make them an exciting area of research with promising applications for the future.

Overall, bioluminescence ‌has proven to be a valuable tool in biotechnology and has led to numerous advancements in various fields. As 2020 Review article Seeing (and Using) the Light: Recent Developments in Bioluminescence Technology states in the journal Cell Press, “Despite the versatility and ubiquity of bioluminescence in biomedical imaging, limitations remain.” But that doesn’t mean scientists and researchers will get discouraged. Quite the opposite, they are very much determined to push the boundaries of what is possible with bioluminescent technologies.