David Anderson: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals
So raise your hand if you know someone in your immediate family or circle of friends who suffers from some form of mental illness. Yeah. I thought so. Not surprised.
And raise your hand if you think that basic research on fruit flies has anything to do with understanding mental illness in humans. Yeah. I thought so. I’m also not surprised. I can see I’ve got my work cut out for me here.
As we heard from Dr. Insel this morning, psychiatric disorders like autism, depression and schizophrenia take a terrible toll on human suffering. We know much less about their treatment and the understanding of their basic mechanisms than we do about diseases of the body. Think about it: In 2013, the second decade of the millennium, if you’re concerned about a cancer diagnosis and you go to your doctor, you get bone scans, biopsies and blood tests. In 2013, if you’re concerned about a depression diagnosis, you go to your doctor, and what do you get? A questionnaire. Now, part of the reason for this is that we have an oversimplified and increasingly outmoded view of the biological basis of psychiatric disorders. We tend to view them — and the popular press aids and abets this view — as chemical imbalances in the brain, as if the brain were some kind of bag of chemical soup full of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. This view is conditioned by the fact that many of the drugs that are prescribed to treat these disorders, like Prozac, act by globally changing brain chemistry, as if the brain were indeed a bag of chemical soup. But that can’t be the answer, because these drugs actually don’t work all that well. A lot of people won’t take them, or stop taking them, because of their unpleasant side effects. These drugs have so many side effects because using them to treat a complex psychiatric disorder is a bit like trying to change your engine oil by opening a can and pouring it all over the engine block. Some of it will dribble into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.
Now, an emerging view that you also heard about from Dr. Insel this morning, is that psychiatric disorders are actually disturbances of neural circuits that mediate emotion, mood and affect. When we think about cognition, we analogize the brain to a computer. That’s no problem. Well it turns out that the computer analogy is just as valid for emotion. It’s just that we don’t tend to think about it that way. But we know much less about the circuit basis of psychiatric disorders because of the overwhelming dominance of this chemical imbalance hypothesis. Read the rest of this entry »
Aditi Shankardass: A second opinion on developmental disorders
When I was 10 years old, a cousin of mine took me on a tour of his medical school. And as a special treat, he took me to the pathology lab and took a real human brain out of the jar and placed it in my hands. And there it was, the seat of human consciousness, the powerhouse of the human body, sitting in my hands. And that day I knew that when I grew up, I was going to become a brain doctor, scientist, something or the other.
Years later, when I finally grew up, my dream came true. And it was while I was doing my Ph.D. on the neurological causes of dyslexia in children that I encountered a startling fact that I’d like to share with you all today. It is estimated that one in six children, that’s one in six children, suffer from some developmental disorder. This is a disorder that retards mental development in the child and causes permanent mental impairments. Which means that each and every one of you here today knows at least one child that is suffering from a developmental disorder.
But here’s what really perplexed me. Despite the fact that each and every one of these disorders originates in the brain, most of these disorders are diagnosed solely on the basis of observable behavior. But diagnosing a brain disorder without actually looking at the brain is analogous to treating a patient with a heart problem based on their physical symptoms, without even doing an ECG or a chest X-ray to look at the heart. It seemed so intuitive to me. To diagnose and treat a brain disorder accurately, it would be necessary to look at the brain directly. Looking at behavior alone can miss a vital piece of the puzzle and provide an incomplete, or even a misleading, picture of the child’s problems. Yet, despite all the advances in medical technology, the diagnosis of brain disorders in one in six children still remained so limited. Read the rest of this entry »
Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives. Read the rest of this entry »
Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds
We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination. And we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives. But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.
So I am going to be talking about hallucinations, and a particular sort of visual hallucination which I see among my patients. A few months ago, I got a phone call from a nursing home where I work. They told me that one of their residents, an old lady in her 90s, was seeing things, and they wondered if she’d gone bonkers or, because she was an old lady, whether she’d had a stroke, or whether she had Alzheimer’s. Read the rest of this entry »
I want you to take a look at this baby. What you’re drawn to are her eyes and the skin you love to touch. But today I’m going to talk to you about something you can’t see — what’s going on up in that little brain of hers. The modern tools of neuroscience are demonstrating to us that what’s going on up there is nothing short of rocket science. And what we’re learning is going to shed some light on what the romantic writers and poets described as the “celestial openness” of the child’s mind. Read the rest of this entry »