A brain disease AND (fill in the blank)


Schizophrenia (Photo credit: Alaina Abplanalp Photography)


Not addiction related, but a very interesting look at  new directions for treating and understanding schizophrenia.


The article opens by reflecting on where we stand with our attempts to understand the causes:


…the outcome of two decades of serious psychiatric science is that schizophrenia now appears to be a complex outcome of many unrelated causes—the genes you inherit, but also whether your mother fell ill during her pregnancy, whether you got beaten up as a child or were stressed as an adolescent, even how much sun your skin has seen. It’s not just about the brain. It’s not just about genes. In fact, schizophrenia looks more and more like diabetes. A messy array of risk factors predisposes someone to develop diabetes: smoking, being overweight, collecting fat around the middle rather than on the hips, high blood pressure, and yes, family history. These risk factors are not intrinsically linked. Some of them have something to do with genes, but most do not. They hang together so loosely that physicians now speak of a metabolic “syndrome,” something far looser and vaguer than an “illness,” let alone a “disease.” Psychiatric researchers increasingly think about schizophrenia in similar terms.


The author reports disenchantment with a simple biomedical model and offer three reasons.


First, disappointment with medication:


The first reason the tide turned is that the newer, targeted medications did not work very well. It is true that about a third of those who take antipsychotics improve markedly. But the side effects of antipsychotics are not very pleasant. They can make your skin crawl as if ants were scuttling underneath the surface. They can make you feel dull and bloated. While they damp down the horrifying hallucinations that can make someone’s life a misery—harsh voices whispering “You’re stupid” dozens of times a day, so audible that the sufferer turns to see who spoke—it is not as if the drugs restore most people to the way they were before they fell sick. Many who are on antipsychotic medication are so sluggish that they are lucky if they can work menial jobs.


Second, the genetics are much more complicated than was assumed:


The second reason the tide turned against the simple biomedical model is that the search for a genetic explanation fell apart. Genes are clearly involved in schizophrenia.




The effort to narrow the number of genes that may play a role has been daunting. A leading researcher in the field, Ridha Joober, has argued that there are so many genes involved, and the effects of any one gene are so small, that the serious scientist working in the field should devote his or her time solely to identifying genes that can be shown not to be relevant.


Third, global research is revealing that culture and social factors play a much bigger role than previously understood:


The third reason for the pushback against the biomedical approach is that a cadre of psychiatric epidemiologists and anthropologists has made clear that culture really matters. In the early days of the biomedical revolution, when schizophrenia epitomized the pure brain disorder, the illness was said to appear at the same rate around the globe, as if true brain disease respected no social boundaries and was found in all nations, classes, and races in equal measure. … In recent years, epidemiologists have been able to demonstrate that while schizophrenia is rare everywhere, it is much more common in some settings than in others, and in some societies the disorder seems more severe and unyielding.


For example:


Schizophrenia has a more benign course and outcome in the developing world. The best data come from India. In the study that established the difference, researchers looking at people two years after they first showed up at a hospital for care found that they scored significantly better on most outcome measures than a comparable group in the West. They had fewer symptoms, took less medication, and were more likely to be employed and married.


The article closes with a few examples of alternative strategies from other countries. I’m sure it will provoke controversy, but seems increasingly hard to defend the status quo.






4 thoughts on “A brain disease AND (fill in the blank)

  1. I read a book called Madness Explained (Richard P Bentall). He says severe mental illness is like sunburn. Pale skin is inherited, but overexposure to strong sunlight is required to produce sunburn. And so it seems to be with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder…


  2. Thanks for the comment. That’s a good analogy. It’s also probably worth noting that this story of the search for a single genetic cause and finding a much more complicated picture is being shared with many illnesses–certainly addiction, but also cancer and many other physical illnesses.

    Thanks again.


  3. Swell, back to bad mothering. Forward into the past. Gee, we didn’t find a single gene causing schizophrenia after looking for a few years, so all we can do now is throw in the towel and return to Freud and Laing… how depressing. Did the Decade of the Brain every really happen, or was I just dreaming?


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