"A new era in biological psychiatry"

Neuroscientist Adam Kepecs delivers 2023 Hearst Memorial Lecture

The legacy of PBS Distinguished Professor Eliot Hearst (1932-2018) lives on in many ways, not least in the Eliot S. Hearst Memorial Lectureship, an annual lecture established to honor the tradition of research and mentorship in the study of animal behavior that Hearst’s career exemplified so strongly.

On April 12, Adam Kepecs, Robert J. Terry Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine delivered the 2023 Hearst Memorial Lecture. Titled “Mistuned Brain Circuits and Broken Mental Algorithms: A Cross-Species Approach to Psychiatry,” the lecture explored the strategies he has developed to circumvent some fundamental challenges in psychiatry. 

Adam Kepecs gives his lecture to PBS faculty, staff, and students. Photo by Jordan Morning

The challenge at hand: that psychiatrists must rely on the subjective assessments of patients to diagnose their conditions. Instead of objective markers like blood tests that doctors use to detect other illnesses, psychiatrists must rely on the words of their patients, who tell them they are “anxious,” “depressed,” or are “hearing voices.”

On the other side of the coin is the challenge for researchers using animal models to study mental disorders: their subjects do not use words. “Can rodents really think? We know they can fear, they can run, they can get motivated. But can they make intelligent decisions, and do they have an internal world that is sufficiently rich that we can study mental disorders in rodents.”

Kepecs’ solution is to bring about “a new era in biological psychiatry” with the aid of computational models. He reframes the words of patients as computational concepts that can be rigorously tested and the lecture filled out the details of this approach.


Kepecs is a world-class neuroscientist with the unique ability to ask important questions in psychology and psychiatry . . .

– Professor Istvan Katona


In addition to his lecture, Kepecs talked to students in PBS Professor Istvan Katona’s “Addictions” course, on how the relationship between neuroscience and artificial intelligence has led to a better understanding of the brain and a revolution in the development of AI. He also discussed the different routes their careers could take with a background and training in neuroscience.

The visit, says Katona, “was a resounding success. Kepecs is a world-class neuroscientist with the unique ability to ask important questions in psychology and psychiatry and address these questions with new animal models that more precisely mirror the human situation than previous models. Moreover, his knowledge of the latest state-of-the-art neuroscience approaches enable him to investigate the specific brain circuit mechanisms that underlie complex psychological and psychiatric phenomena.”

Thanks to the gracious support of Drs. Joe Newman and Alida Evans, the annual lectureship is fast becoming a major event which highlights cutting-edge work in psychological and brain sciences and expands the horizons of students, faculty, and the IU community at large.


Science Writer