Is there a link between the brain and mental illness?
Yes, “Researchers studying mental illness believe that abnormalities in how particular brain circuits function contribute to the development of many mental illnesses. Connections between nerve cells along certain pathways or circuits in the brain can lead to problems with how the brain processes information and may result in abnormal mood, thinking, perception, or behavior.”
- Mental illnesses, just like other illnesses, have a physiological cause
- Because mental illnesses have physiological causes, you cannot just “snap out of” a mental illness.
Though mental illness is frequently stigmatized in our society, it’s important to remember that mental illnesses are just as real and impactful as physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Despite what society may believe, mental health challenges are not signs of weakness, instability, or moral failing. In fact, mental illness can have a real impact on our bodies, including directly affecting the functioning of our brains, just like physical illness can affect the functioning of other vital organs like our heart and lungs.
Good mental health
Good mental health is an essential part of our overall well being, but not that many years ago mental health issues were thought of by many as something that was all in the mind. And while we know now that the mind is as important for health as the body, back then saying something was all in your mind was simply another way of saying you were probably imagining it.
Thank goodness, then, for the discoveries scientists have made in more recent years about the causes of mental health problems, including the biological processes in the brain that are affected when someone has a mental illness.
As the organ most responsible for our behavior, decision making, and emotions, our brain is directly impacted by mental illness. But as scientists continue research into the human brain, they have found evidence that mental illness may cause or worsen existing disruptions to the way the brain works, and in some cases, even the way the brain is structured. In other words, while we still don’t know exactly why some mental illnesses occur the way they do, we have much greater insight today than ever before into the relationship between our brain’s chemistry and our mental health.
One example where scientists see neurotransmitters affecting our mental health is in the brains of people with depression. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with depression have lower amounts of serotonin pass between their neurons than people who are not depressed. This is why antidepressants (specifically medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) often increase the level of serotonin present in the brain. Here is a diagram of what this process looks like.
Other mental health conditions that are also linked to the presence or absence of neurotransmitters include schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, both of which may be connected to neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, researchers believe that individuals who suffer from “flashbacks” may also experience an increased level of norepinephrine alongside elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
In some cases, scientists believe that neurotransmitters are involved in mental illness, even if they don’t yet know exactly how. In the case of obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, doctors have seen improvement among patients who take a medication that increases the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine in the body. While this medication has helped patients decrease the number of times they engage in compulsive behavior, it doesn’t alleviate the obsession itself. For this reason, most doctors recommend a combination of medication and behavioral therapy for most mental illnesses.
In summary, when the brain has too much or too little of a particular neurotransmitter, individuals commonly experience mental health complications.
Though it’s difficult to say with absolute certainty that neurotransmitters are a leading cause of mental illness, researchers know that their presence or absence can greatly affect our mental health. Changing levels of many different neurotransmitters play a critical role in our mental health.
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