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What next for mental health and wellbeing?

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How advances in brain science and artificial intelligence could transform our mental health and wellbeing.

In 2008 I co-authored the Foresight report: Mental capital and wellbeing, in which we emphasized that the most important role of countries was to promote citizens’ cognitive ability and mental wellbeing, and brought benefits in considering topics from brain development to architecture, public spaces and the built environment.

In the nine years since the report was published there has been an explosion in techniques to study the brain. We can now create stem cells from human patients and culture these as neurons to study the development of mental illness, make brain tissue transparent to reveal the complex interactions between cells, and selectively turn on individual neural circuits with a beam of light to pin down where specific functions are located.

We have also made amazing progress in understanding the brain in health and disease. For example, the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for discoveries of cells that constitute the brain’s ‘inner GPS’. These cells allow us to navigate the world and are frequently affected in the early progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.

At the same time, outstanding achievements have been made in artificial intelligence (AI). These include: self-driving cars, utilizing big data for medical diagnoses, and finally becoming the best chess and Go players in the world, by defeating their human rivals. But who should we give the credit for this achievement - the computer and its algorithms or the brain behind it? The answer is both. We can play chess, Go, do our daily work activities and look after families, unlike computers, that are dedicated to a single activity only.

Bringing together AI and brain science

Close collaboration between neuroscientists and experts in AI provides opportunities to synergize the creativity of the human brain with the deep learning of AI.

In my lab we already use games on an iPad or iPhone to improve memory in older people in the early stage of dementia (‘Game Show’). Elsewhere researchers are starting to understand the onset of depression through analysing data from their smartphone, treating phobias using virtual reality and unlocking the minds of patients previously thought to be in a permanently vegetative state.

Looking forward over the next 10 years, illnesses could be diagnosed more precisely and the concept of personalised or individualised medicine could finally be achieved. New modes of sensing and learning could make education more rewarding and offer new ways to interact with the world.

The convergence of neuroscience and AI offers opportunities to not only improve our understanding of the brain in health and disease, but also enhance our brain and wellbeing in a flourishing society.

Read Foresight’s Mental Capital and Wellbeing report to find out how we can improve our mental resources and mental wellbeing through life.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Kwesi Sakyi posted on

    Brain science or neuroscience may be unethical because it may lead to the path of remotely controlling how people behave or think so that they can eventually be triggered to make certain decisions which will profit the corporate world or some vested interest groups. AI is machine learning which can bring comfort and protection to our homes and workplaces but won't that make us lazy and will not that cause people to protest as Luddites because of job losses and having too much leisure and luxury?