Mental illness hasn’t exactly been keeping a low profile lately. Every week seems to bring a new headline with an accompanying barrage of new opinions about behavioral and psychiatric disorders. On one end of the spectrum are heartbreaking losses like the late, great Robin Williams. On the other are the mass murderers like Elliot Rodger and Adam Lanza who get turned into poster children for the failings of our mental health care system (and/or our gun laws). With mental illness constantly making tragic headlines, it’s no surprise that everyone wants to solve the mystery of the human brain.
Efforts to Get inside the Brain
From President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman’s $200 billion bequest to Columbia University in the form of a neuroscience center, buckets of cash have been poured into brain research over the last several years. Just last month, philanthropist Ted Stanley gave $650 million to the Broad Institute in the hope that it could pinpoint the genes that cause schizophrenia—which affects Stanley’s own son.
Indeed, genetics are the hot topic right now when it comes to uncovering the roots of mental illness. In part, that’s because nothing else has worked very well. For the most part, the experts who gathered at the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation meeting last month agreed that over the last few decades, progress towards understanding serious psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar has been frustratingly slow. Although we’re a far cry from Cuckoo’s Nest levels of ignorance, the mechanisms of these conditions remain elusive.
Getting To Know the Genome
Many researchers are hopeful that genes may hold the key to unlocking the next level of mental health treatments. Already, researchers believe they’ve uncovered 108 genetic loci that are associated with schizophrenia. But the human genome is so sprawling that it might take years, even decades, before the people suffering from psychiatric disorders are able to reap the rewards.
Since decoding the genetic map of mental health is a long-term project, some scientists have stressed the continued importance of medications. With so many young minds hopping on board the genetic train, interest in new pharmacological research has dropped. Even the big drug companies aren’t investing in the development of new medications.
The Drug Factor
This is not exactly great news, some researchers feel, because clinical pharmacology still has a role to play. Many have argued that the psychiatric drugs we do have are overprescribed, and certainly some of them are. While popping a couple of Xanax may alleviate anxiety, it doesn’t begin to tackle to the core causes of the problem (and can actually be addictive). But there are still many patients out there—particularly those who are schizophrenic and bipolar—who unquestionably would benefit from improved medications. Better drugs have the advantage of easing patients’ symptoms even if we don’t fully understand the genetic basis of the mechanisms at work.
Hope for the Present and Future
Twenty years from now, we may look back on this decade as the beginning of a breakthrough era for brain science. Certainly the recent wave of funding suggests a current of optimism, but also a dire sense of urgency. As more and more people speak out about their battles with mental illness, the stigma begins to disintegrate. Suddenly, it seems, we’ve recognized that these issues don’t just affect the margins of society, but actually touch almost everybody in it.
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