Is mental illness complex? From behavior to brain

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2013 Aug 1:45:253-7. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2012.09.015. Epub 2012 Oct 23.


A defining but elusive feature of the human brain is its astonishing complexity. This complexity arises from the interaction of numerous neuronal circuits that operate over a wide range of temporal and spatial scales, enabling the brain to adapt to the constantly changing environment and to perform various amazing mental functions. In mentally ill patients, such adaptability is often impaired, leading to either ordered or random patterns of behavior. Quantification and classification of these abnormal human behaviors exhibited during mental illness is one of the major challenges of contemporary psychiatric medicine. In the past few decades, attempts have been made to apply concepts adopted from complexity science to better understand complex human behavior. Although considerable effort has been devoted to studying the abnormal dynamic processes involved in mental illness, unfortunately, the primary features of complexity science are typically presented in a form suitable for mathematicians, physicists, and engineers; thus, they are difficult for practicing psychiatrists or neuroscientists to comprehend. Therefore, this paper introduces recent applications of methods derived from complexity science for examining mental illness. We propose that mental illness is loss of brain complexity and the complexity of mental illness can be studied under a general framework by quantifying the order and randomness of dynamic macroscopic human behavior and microscopic neuronal activity. Additionally, substantial effort is required to identify the link between macroscopic behaviors and microscopic changes in the neuronal dynamics within the brain.

Keywords: BOLD; Complexity; EEG; Entropy; MEG; MSE; Mental illness; Spontaneous brain activity; blood oxygen level dependent; electroencephalogram; fMRI; functional magnetic resonance imaging; magnetoencephalography; multiscale entropy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*
  • Nonlinear Dynamics