In search of the mysterious biology of mental health issues
By Grant J Everett
The biological cause(s) of schizophrenia are still cloaked in uncertainty. Detecting this mental health issue will usually involve a psychiatrist going through a list of questions from the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual V (abbreviated to the DSM-V, also nicknamed “The Psychiatrist’s Bible”). There’s no way to detect schizophrenia through blood tests, brain scans or any other measurable, quantitative means, as schizophrenia doesn’t have any physical hallmarks. This means mental health professionals normally have to spot the more obvious outward signs that a person is experiencing psychosis such as social withdrawal, confusion, blunted emotions, paranoia, or a number of other things.
Although the exact way that schizophrenia works on a chemical level is an enigma, we do know that if a person with schizophrenia has children those kids may be more likely to have the condition than kids from parents who don’t have it. If both parents have schizophrenia, though, then the likelihood of them having a child with this condition is higher still. Although this may possibly indicate a genetic link, to date there is no such thing as a “schizophrenia gene,” or any other physical markers. This has made developing pharmaceutical treatments difficult, because it’s basically like trying to hit a target you can’t even see.
But there’s been a breakthrough: major science magazine Nature ran a story about how scientists have uncovered more than 100 genes that, when present, seem to indicate an increased risk of a person with those genes developing schizophrenia. As you’d expect, quite a few of these genes deal with how communication takes place between bits of the human brain. These findings, although still at the preliminary stages, may one day result in measurable, specific targets for psychopharmacologists to focus on, paving the way for the research and creation of medications that are far more effective than the ones our grandparents were taking when they were whippersnappers. The current medications we use to treat schizophrenia can be effective at the correct doses, sure, but the pills and injections we use today have barely changed in half a century, and they don’t work for everybody. Then again, how can the developers of these meds possibly be expected to hit a target if they don’t even know where the target is?
Until the fantasy of targeted medication for mental health issues becomes concrete, though, it’s important that people are treated holistically by focusing on the many important elements that combine to make a complete person: physically, psychologically, vocationally and socially.