Computers Become Schizophrenic-Like When Learning Goes Into Overdrive

By Valerie Ross | May 9, 2011 1:54 pm

What’s the News: Researchers have simulated the symptoms of schizophrenia using a language-learning computer program, in a recent study published in Biological Psychiatry. The computer started showing schizophrenia-like symptoms when it was set to learn too much and forget too little. This study lends support to the hyperlearning hypothesis, that the brains of people with schizophrenia have trouble forgetting or filtering out irrelevant information.

How the Heck:

  • The researchers used a neural network—a computer program set up to mimic networks in the brain—called DISCERN, which can learn natural language and remember stories. The researchers trained the program with 28 stories, half of which were first-person narratives, and half of which were impersonal gangsters-and-lawmen crime stories.
  • Once DISCERN learned those stories, the researchers tested out eight different changes to the program, each meant to simulate one possible mechanism for schizophrenia, such as random noise in certain memory networks or distortions in language processing. One of these simulated the hyperlearning hypothesis by increasing the program’s learning rate, telling it to learn more intensely and to forget less.
  • They then prompted the program to retell the stories it had heard, and compared the results to stories told by healthy controls and schizophrenic patients.
  • Only the hyperlearning program made DISCERN sound like human schizophrenics: jumping from one topic to another, confusing who did what, and adding in new information. The hyperlearning computer’s tendency to confuse personal narratives and third-person crime stories, the researchers wrote, “could account for the bizarreness of fixed, self-referential delusions, e.g., a patient insisting that her father-in- law is Saddam Hussein or that she herself is the Virgin Mary.”

What’s the Context:

  • The neural underpinnings of schizophrenia are unknown. While some scientists hold that hyperlearning—likely caused by a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine in certain neural circuits, which is thought to signal the brain that new information is important—is at the root of the disease, others have suggested roles for a variety of different neurotransmitters, receptors, and brain regions.
  • Working with artificial neural networks lets researchers poke, prod, and investigate in a way that’s impossible to do with biological networks. “We have so much more control over neural networks than we could ever have over human subjects,” said study author Uli Grasemann, a computer science graduate student, in a prepared statement.

Not So Fast:

  • Computers are, of course, not people. Seeing schizophrenia-like results from a particular change in a computer’s neural network doesn’t necessarily mean a similar change in a person’s neural network underlies the disease. This study provides a theoretical test, but more studies must be done to see if the hypothesis holds true in human patients.

Reference: Ralph E. Hoffman, Uli Grasemann, Ralitza Gueorguieva, Donald Quinlan, Douglas Lane, & Risto Miikkulainen. “Using Computational Patients to Evaluate Illness Mechanisms in Schizophrenia.” Biological Psychiatry, May 2011. DOI:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.12.036

Image: Flickr / Justin Ruckman

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology
  • Kurosu

    I have a hunch it’s true or at least partially.I’ve been through the stages of schizophrenia on an unconscious level because I was too intrigued with the process of learning how to do certain meaningless things perfect.I’ve had problems after that, yet enough advice and spiritual guidance and I’m a 110% better.It’s amazing the things that being happy can cure.I’ve even had some of those symptoms the computer was experiencing and then some.It’s like I was experiencing dementia but someone kept turning the switch on and off which in turn made me lose some memory unfortunately,but who knows i have been in a car accident and pretty sure my brain took some kind of impact.I have a degenerative eye disease and a few mental ones yet I take no medication. Just meditation.Most of my mental problems are in the past however I still have adhd.That has been the most persistent.I got offended when my family and friends tried to pass it off as me being possessed. I’m too intellectual for that to be a fact and quite frankly don’t believe in superstitions that intense.

  • Greg

    I was also intrigued by this study, not because I put much trust in the hypothesis, but because of my own two seperate experiences with psychotic symptoms over the past 6 months. I’m 37, so the onset of SCZ in the traditional sense seems unlikely. Both times I was trying to learn very fast, and I WAS learning fast. My learning triggered a certain manic euphoric state, which accelerated my learning more (or seemed to). The psychotic symptoms creeped up on me, and before I knew it I thought I was a prophet practically. Connections were being made, and everything I saw seemed to be about me, every story, every narrative, and had universal implications. The euphoria turned to paranoia quickly and I slowed down –thinking I had obviously overstressed myself. The symptoms cleared in a few days. I could just write it off as bipolar symptoms, since I also experience depression. Interesting article though, because I’m convinced my learning drive (and success) was related to my euphoric trigger, and the subsequent psychotic schizophrenic thinking patterns.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar