Everyone has had fleeting concerns that others might be against them at some point in their lives. Sometimes these concerns can escalate into paranoia and become debilitating.

Paranoia is a common symptom in serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. It can cause extreme distress and is linked with an increased risk of violence towards oneself or others.

Understanding what happens in the brains of people experiencing paranoia might lead to better ways to treat or manage it.

Change Game

Some experts argue that paranoia is caused by errors in the way people assess social situations. An alternative idea is that paranoia stems from the way the brain forms and updates beliefs about the world.

Now, Erin J Reed of Yale School of Medicine, along with her co-authors, demonstrate that both people with paranoia and rats exposed to a paranoia-inducing substance expect the world will change frequently, change their minds often, and have a harder time learning in response to changing circumstances[1].

In the experiments, human volunteers with and without psychiatric disorders played a game where the best choices change. Then, the participants completed a survey to assess their level of paranoia.

People with higher levels of paranoia predicted more changes would occur and made less predictable choices.

Belief Updating Deficits

In a second set of experiments, rats were put in a cage with three holes where they sometimes received sugar rewards. Some of the rats received methamphetamine, a drug that causes paranoia in humans.

Rats given the drug also expected the location of the sugar reward would change often. The drugged animals had harder time learning and adapting to changing circumstances.

The experiments suggest that brain processes found in both rats, which are less social than humans, and humans contribute to paranoia. This suggests paranoia may make it harder to update beliefs.

This may help scientists understand what causes paranoia and develop therapies or drugs that can reduce paranoia. This information may also help scientists understand why during societal crises like wars or natural disasters humans are prone to believing conspiracies.

This is particularly important now as the world grapples with climate change and a global pandemic. Reed et al. note paranoia may impede the coordination of collaborative solutions to these challenging situations.

Funding for the work came from NIMH, International Mental Health Research Organization, Interacting Minds Centre, NIH, NINDS, Gustavus and Louise Pfeiffer Research Foundation, NSF, and NIDA, and was supported by the Yale University Department of Psychiatry, the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC) and Connecticut State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS).

[1] Erin J Reed, Stefan Uddenberg, Praveen Suthaharan, Christoph H Mathys, Jane R Taylor, Stephanie Mary Groman, Philip R Corlett. Paranoia as a deficit in non-social belief updating. eLife 2020;9:e56345 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.56345

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