It’s Time to Kill This Harmful Myth About Mental Health
Time to kill this harmful myth

It’s Time to Kill This Harmful Myth About Mental Health

Depression, anxiety—these are all caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, right?

Wrong, says neurobiologist David Anderson. Deep in his labs at California Institute of Technology, Anderson and his team are finding increasing evidence that what so much human suffering really comes down to is the presence of hiccups in the circuitry of the brain itself.

According to Anderson and his team, this misunderstanding is the reason decades have passed since the last innovative treatments for psychiatric disorders, and why the medications we do have often come with so many side effects.1

“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,” the researcher said in a 2013 TEDx Talk. “Some of it will dribble into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.”2

So ignorant are we regarding the mechanisms behind mental illness that, “if you are concerned about a depression diagnosis, you go to your doctor and what do you get? A questionnaire.”3

For years now, Anderson and his crew have been on a mission to kill the myth that the brain is simply a “bag of chemicals,” enlisting the help of fruit flies and mice along the way. Dubbed “model organisms,” Anderson sees them as the key to a more nuanced understanding regarding the relationship between brain circuitry and brain chemicals. This is because while studies of the human brain have succeeded in linking certain areas of the brain with certain emotions, they have no way of parsing out which “hotspots represent the actual cause of an emotional response, and which of them represent a reaction” to it.4 By studying the flies’ and mice’s reactions to experimental changes in their various brain circuits, the researchers hope to cut through this ambiguity.5

Sure enough, recent research to come out of The David Anderson Research Group lays waste to the stereotype of the hypothalamus as merely a part of the brain involved in behaviors like drinking and eating, but that it, too, has a hand in the control of emotions much like the amygdala. Meanwhile, Haijiang Cai and Prabhat Kunwar, both postdoctoral fellows affiliated with the lab, are investigating the relationship between neural circuits related to learned versus innate fear, as well as to those connected to anxiety. They believe that doing so has the possibility of uncovering new drug targets for disorders involving both anxiety and depression.6

Dr. Thomas Insel is equally hopeful. “I think we’re about to be in a very different world when it comes to psychiatric disorders,” the director of the National Institute of Mental Health said True, the brain is home to some 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses. As Insel put it, “It’s a cruel trick of evolution that we simply don’t have a brain that seems to be wired well enough to understand itself.” So why the optimism? Because, against such overwhelming odds, researchers have already begun to identify anomalies in the brain circuitry with people suffering from disorders like depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. True, he said, a deep understanding of each of these is a long way off. But for the first time ever, scientists are able to identify patterns that represent risk factors for one these disorders. And that, Insel says, is progress.7

Slowing that progress down is this idea that these are illnesses merely of the mind or behavior. In fact, Insel advocates abolishing the terms “mental disorder” and “behavioral disorder,” and installing “brain disorder” in their place. “We’re talking about traffic jams, or sometimes detours, or sometimes problems with just the way that things are connected and the way that the brain functions,” he explained.8

But that’s not all, according to Anderson, who cites a gaping hole in the technology needed to manipulate the human genome in a way that is both ethical and effective as a roadblock to research. Yet even should that be overcome, there is the issue of bringing pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies on board. “[They] have to be convinced there are major profits to be made in this area that overcome the risks of failure during development,” he said in an interview. “And that is a tough sell.” This is especially true, he added, seeing as many consider current treatments for depression adequate, side effects and all. In short, they just “don’t consider it to be worth the risk to develop fundamentally new treatments just to eliminate the side effects—and improve efficacy.”

Even still, Anderson has hope that, in another 10 years or so, these discoveries and approaches will be used to help treat those suffering from psychiatric disorders. Until then, the researcher stresses that people should continue to take the medications currently prescribed to them, noting they can be “profoundly beneficial,” side effects and all.






3 Ibid.





8 Ibid.

Written by By Tamarra Kemsley