Scientists are increasingly finding that mental disorders may only be malfunctions of the physical brain, much like a broken ankle, and, perhaps, equally curable.
The brain is highly specialized, and mental maladies are rooted in specific areas of the brain. Anxiety disorders may affect areas of the brain that govern emotion; schizophrenia areas that govern hearing and sight.
“By knowing where in the brain things may go wrong in mental disorders, we can target rationally designed treatments,” said Steven Hyman, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
“We’re actually beginning to localize specific emotions in the brain,” he said. One of the first: fear, based in an almond-shaped structure at the front of the brain. “This can help us to design better treatments for anxiety disorders,” Hyman said.
As neuroscientists head into the home stretch of the Decade of the Brain - as Congress dubbed the 1990s - the understanding that the brain and body aren’t all that different has led to many discoveries.
Researchers know that the things that keep bodies healthy - a balanced diet, rest and exercise - also keep the brain healthy.
And they also know that keeping intellectually active - or gaining high levels of education - protects people against many brain disorders, the same way exercise helps physical health.
“Using your brain prevents disease,” said Joseph Coyle, chairman of Harvard University’s department of psychiatry. “A use-it-or-lose-it strategy works in the brain.”
Hyman also expects the new understanding of the brain’s workings to pave the way to more acceptance for mental patients.
“Once we realize that mental disorders represent specific forms of brain functions,” he said, “the results should be profoundly destigmatizing.”
Other major advances and findings in brain research:
False memories: Scientists know more about how false memories occur. Some patients have sued their therapists for making them “remember” events of childhood abuse that never happened.
In one experiment this past year, Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth University, gave a group of people a list of words that included, “rest” and “bed.” Later, when he gave them a second list of words and asked them to pick out the ones that were on the first list, many patients picked out “sleep.”
When Gazzaniga made brain images to see which parts of the brain people were using, the people who picked out “sleep” used a part of their brains that builds associations - they associated “sleep” with “bed” and “rest.”
Schizophrenia: The brains of schizophrenics are now known to work differently from other people’s.
For example, said Harvard’s Coyle, “When schizophrenic individuals have hallucinations, they hear voices that seem quite real and occurring out there, outside their bodies.” The reason: the same area of the brain that responds to outside sounds gets triggered by hallucinations in schizophrenics.
“Understanding the neuropsychiatry makes it clear why they perceive hallucinations the way they do,” he said at a meeting organized by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.
Alzheimer’s disease: Scientists have found an animal model for the disease. Gary Gottlieb, a geriatric psychiatrist and the chief executive officer of Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, said a genetically engineered mouse showed both pathological signs of illness as well as trouble learning or making decisions.
Scientists can now test new medicines on the mouse, to see if they can cure it.
Parkinson’s disease: A new technique called deep brain stimulation, where tiny electrodes are implanted in the brain, can reduce patients’ tremor, said Gottlieb, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
Early development: Much of what happens in the brain happens early, which means parents should provide babies with an environment of rich sensory experiences.
“If light or movement or touch or smell are lacking, there will be nerve cells that will not get the proper growth factors and will not survive,” said Martha Bridge Denckla, director of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a pediatric neurology research center in Baltimore. “The way the brain gets wired together depends on activity.”