Research Initiatives

Why is it that a depressed individual may value nothing at all, while an addict might value drug consumption above all else? What makes someone endlessly—and irrationally—repeat a behavior such as hand-washing? And how might the plasticity of the brain be harnessed to heal brain injuries?

Computational approaches have become an integral part of neuroscience and cognitive science, yet human decision-making processes and mental disorders have yet to be systematically analyzed in computational terms. To characterize mental function and dysfunction, the Computational Psychiatry Unit has launched several large-scale data collection projects.

Through its international functional brain imaging network and the Roanoke Brain Study, for example, the Computational Psychiatry Unit is becoming the hub for interactive functional brain imaging around the world. The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s two MRI scanners in Roanoke connect not only with a third MRI at the Institute’s satellite facility in Blacksburg, but also with MRIs at collaborative sites across the United States and in Europe and Asia. The large-scale and uniquely interactive research that this technology enables are providing new insights into the decision-making operations of the human brain, not just in healthy volunteers, but also in people who have suffered stroke or a traumatic brain injury, or have autism spectrum disorder, dementia, depression, or chronic addiction.

In addition, Computational Psychiatry Unit scientists are collaborating with Warren Bickel, director of the Advanced Recovery Research Center of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, to explore issues related to addiction and recovery. They are also working with Craig Ramey and Sharon Ramey, professors in the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, to study issues in child brain development.

Discovery Highlights

Working with subjects as disparate as physicians, art experts, Buddhist meditators, and children with autism, scientists at the Computational Psychiatry Unit are making numerous discoveries about human decision-making and cognition. Among their recent findings:

Liberals and Conservatives React in Wildly Different Ways to Repulsive Pictures

In the mid-2000s, a political scientist approached the neuroscientist Read Montague with a radical proposal. He and his colleagues had evidence, he said, that political orientation might be partly inherited, and might be revealed by our physiological reactivity to threats. To test their theory, they wanted Montague, who heads the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech, to scan the brains of subjects as they looked at a variety of images—including ones displaying potential contaminants such as mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores—to see whether neural responses showed any correlation with political ideology. Was he interested?

Physicians Learn More by Paying Attention to Failure

Doctors can make better treatment decisions when they learn from their mistakes—and the more experienced they are, the slower they are to learn.

Dopamine Release in the Brain Can Reveal Decision-Making

Functional magnetic resonance imaging can successfully track the movement of dopamine between brain cells while a subject expresses decision-making behavior.

Expertise Provides a Buffer Against Bias in Making Judgments

Monetary favors can influence people’s assessments of artworks, but not if the viewer is an art expert.

Mindfulness Meditation Can Change the Decision-Making Process

Buddhist meditators use different areas of the brain than other people when confronted with unfair choices, enabling them to make decisions rationally rather than emotionally.

Collaborating Laboratories

The Computational Psychiatry Unit collaborates with several principal laboratories, each of which contributes world-class strengths in different aspects of neuroscience and related fields. These laboratories include:

Human Neuroimaging Laboratory (Read Montague, PhD)

Dr. Read Montague focuses on computational neuroscience—the connection between the physical mechanisms present in neural tissue and the functions that these mechanisms embody. Work in the Montague group includes experiments involving synaptic physiology, human neuroimaging, and human behavior in special populations.

The Chiu Laboratory (Pearl Chiu, PhD)

Dr. Pearl Chiu examines the neurobiological mechanisms of reward-processing and social decision-making. She uses fMRI, ERPs, behavior, and computational models to understand how these processes may go awry and be remediated in psychiatric populations.

The King-Casas Laboratory (Brooks King-Casas, PhD)

Dr. Brooks King-Casas studies how neural structures implement interpersonal transactions. Specifically, his lab exploits game-theoretic experimental paradigms, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and learning theory in order to quantitatively understand social behavior and its neural substrates.

The LaConte Laboratory (Stephen LaConte, PhD)

Dr. Stephen LaConte’s lab develops advanced neuroimaging acquisition and data analysis approaches, aimed at understanding and ultimately rehabilitating neurological and psychiatric diseases. A major focus of the lab is the development of real-time fMRI using multivariate analysis methods. The lab is highly collaborative and is working on a number of real-time fMRI applications in such areas as motor learning, speech and language, traumatic brain injury, addiction, and depression.

Computational psychiatry is now also the focus of an official collaboration between the Max Planck Society and University College London, where Dr. Montague holds a faculty appointment. Their shared goal is to revolutionize the approach to understanding psychopathologies by combining functional neuroimaging with computational modeling. Supported by some of the world’s leading minds in theoretical neuroscience, this effort aims to foster collaborations between all associated institutions.


Computational Psychiatry Unit scientists work across disciplines to understand the neural computations involved in human cognition and psychiatric illness. Continue reading “Insight”