Friday, March 26, 2010

New Insights into Mental Illness

Many residents of the Pacific Northwest are plagued with mental illness. These individuals have long endured the stigma that has been associated with it. Many of the misconceptions surrounding this category of disease come from a lack of understanding as to the root causes of these ailments. Thanks to the remarkable strides made in the area of neurobiology, a much clearer picture is emerging regarding the underlying causes for these mental conditions.

The picture that is currently emerging in regards to a number of mental disorders including major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is that there is dysfunction within particular brain circuits. The case regarding major depressive disorder will be discussed in further detail below.

Major depressive disorder impacts 16% of the entire national population – a significant number of individuals. The symptoms of this devastating illness include profound feelings of despair and helplessness. In addition, there is also a host of physical symptoms including loss of appetite, sleep disturbances, constipation and fatigue. Depression has been shown to impact the immune system and, therefore, places the sufferer at additional risk for infectious disease and cancer. Despite its wide-ranging effects, this disease is essentially a brain disorder.

Current evidence clearly implicates an area of the brain referred to as the prefrontal cortex (PFC) within an area called 25 – which functions as a hub for the neuronal circuit that underlies the manifestation of clinical depression. Area 25 got its name from Korbinian Brodmann, a German neurobiologist, in 1909. Dr. Helen Mayberg from Emory University has conclusively demonstrated that this area is overly active in depression, and that when patients are successfully treated, this activity diminishes regardless of the methods employed. Furthermore, area 25 is rich in the substances that transport serotonin, a major neurotransmitter found in the brain. Many anti-depressant medicines react directly with these transporters. A gene responsible for the production of an essential transporter has also been implicated with major depressive disorder – a conclusion that is consistent with the known association of depression with inheritance.

This new scientific understanding of the origins of many of the common mental illnesses will, hopefully, help to shatter the out-dated mystique around mental illness and accelerate the development of new and highly efficacious treatments.

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