The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Brain Disorders:
An Important Discovery and a New Hope

Aug 16, 2010

The following article comes from a presentation made in the "Hall of Discovery" at Spark's annual Summer Festival.

In its April issue, Scientific American magazine reported about a new discovery in brain science. Recent measurements made on the brains of depression and PTSD patients showed something that scientists had not been able to observe before: in patients with these mental disorders, there seemed to be an electrical â"" that is, physical â"" abnormality in different brain parts that deal with fear and anxiety.

What is so significant about this discovery? The fact that a physical abnormality in a living person's brain has been linked with a problem that, so far, has been considered purely "mental" â"" that is, not physical.

It's true that there was the case of Phineas Gage, the American railroad worker who, in 1848, had a 1?½-inch-thick iron rod go straight through his head. Gage lived â"" which allowed scientists to link the physical damage in Gage's brain to his changed behavior. But how many people survive such an accident? Maybe one in a million, maybe even less!

And it's also true that, for some time, we have had technology that gives us detailed, 3-D pictures of the brains of living people. These pictures allow us to see physical changes in a person's brain â"" such as the dead part in the brain of a stroke patient. Or, they show us chemical abnormalities â"" such as the plaque in the brain of an Alzheimer's or Parkinson's patient.

For sure, these brain scans are very helpful for doctors in providing treatment for their patients. But still, there is a problem. The dead part in the brain of a stroke patient is just that â"" dead, and apparently incurable. And the chemical changes in the brain of an Alzheimer's or Parkinson's patient can be detected only at a point when the illness is at an advanced stage, when it's already beyond cure â"" or beyond any effective treatment even.

In fact, from these scans scientists usually can't even tell what, physically, is causing these illnesses.

And that's the key word right there â"" cause. Today we don't know how to cure many illnesses and disorders associated with the brain, because we don't know their physical causes.

How the Brain Works

We do know some things about the brain, of course â"" so we can start there.

We know that the brain regulates all functions of the body. That's an enormous task. So the brain works very hard, and it never stops. That's why, as scientists have found out, the brain alone uses 20% of the body's energy.

Yes, the brain regulates literally all the functions of the body. For example, you touch something â"" you would not feel the heat if your brain didn't tell you that. It doesn't feel like that, of course. We naturally think it's the finger that feels, not the brain â"" especially since the finger also suffers physical damage if it's too hot. But it is the brain that feels â"" or more accurately communicates with the rest of the body about what is happening. First the brain gets a signal from the finger, and then sends back another signal to the finger, which says, "HOT!"

So this communication with all parts of the body â"" how does the brain do that, physically? Through the nerves, which look like wires. And sure enough, the signals between the brain and the other parts of the body are electrical in nature! Now we can begin to understand what's going on.

Think of the light switch â"" how fast electricity travels through wires. That's what it is. Look at the nervous system in the body â"" just like a network of electrical wires. And the brain itself â"" a collection of electrical circuits; just like a computer. Except that the brain is far more complex than any computer human beings have been capable of building.

The essential thing to keep in mind is that the brain is electrical â"" it functions on the principle of electric pulses traveling through it.

And therein lies the new hope, actually. Today, for the first time, we have enough technology to measure small electrical currents inside the brain by putting sensors on a person's head. That way, we can follow the communication between different parts of the brain, as a person, alive, goes through all the activities of living.

The brain parts have to communicate with each other all the time â"" communicate with each other and work together with each other. They have to, because anything and everything we do involves more than one part of the brain.

Since brain activity is electrical, it can be measured with certain types of electric sensors. Unusual, or abnormal, activity can be detected in different parts of the brain of a â"" without causing any physical harm to the brain; and, possibly, while there's time for a cure.

Treating Mental Illness: Trial and Error

I want to use PTSD as an example to show why treating brain disorders â"" especially those we call "mental" disorders â"" has been so difficult. Post-traumatic stress disorder â"" as the name implies, it's a mental disorder that follows a traumatic experience. It's common among combat veterans. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks â"" it's as if the person is going through another traumatic experience, not only with all the fear, anxiety, all the emotions; but even with some physical features of the event, such as sound and smell.

PTSD is the most recent name for this disorder. Historically, it's been called other things, such as shell shock, battle fatigue, etc. And military and government officials have even denied that such a disorder exists. Part of the reason authorities have been able to get away with denial is because not every battle veteran shows these symptoms.

By the way, this is nothing unusual. Take, for example, cancer caused by asbestos contamination. When asbestos in a building is dislodged, a fine asbestos dust goes into the air. You don't see the dust, but you inhale it. It stays in your throat and lungs â"" and, in the long run, it can cause cancer. So workers, who work with and around asbestos and who are exposed to asbestos dust, are at risk. But not all of them get cancer â"" and, for decades, companies have used this fact to deny responsibility (and government regulators and courts have allowed them to get away with it).

Another example is habits people have â"" or even addictions, what are called chemical dependencies. For example, smoking cigarettes. Some people who have the habit can't get rid of it. Others can. Some people don't even seem to be prone to addiction from cigarettes.

Everyone's body, chemically and physically, functions a little differently â"" a difference that we notice in situations like this, but can't explain physically. I think that's an explanation people would accept today. And because we don't have a physical explanation, when we deal with a problem like an addiction, all we can do is to try different solutions â"" which work for some people, and don't work for others.

But it has been the same with mental illness, for centuries. Trial and error â"" that's all medical science has been able to do. Because we have never fully been able to observe the physical workings of the brain, every treatment, every kind of care medicine has come up with to help people with mental problems has remained at the level of trial and error. It has worked for some, and it has not worked for others. Even the most modern treatments â"" psychiatric counseling, anti-depressant drugs â"" have remained just that: trial and error. It works for one patient, but not for the other. And we don't know why. It has been very, very frustrating â"" and it still is â"" for people who struggle with some kind of mental problem and, of course, for their families and friends.

From "Mental" to Physical

It's really important for people to understand that there actually are physical reasons behind the illnesses we call "mental." In fact, the very word "mental" implies that the illness is not physical. And that, in turn, makes people view these kinds of illnesses under a different light than other illnesses.

To put it more bluntly, there is a stigma attached to what we call "mental illness." But then, historically, that has been true for practically every kind of illness. In the old days, people shunned those who were sick; ran away from them, isolated them, whether the illness was contagious or not â"" which increased the suffering of the sick even more. People's attitude toward many illnesses â"" and those who had them â"" changed when science was able to explain the physical causes of those illnesses â"" such as germs, cancerous cells, or a physical condition in the body. The same way, people's attitudes toward the mentally ill will improve â"" when it's clear to people that what we call "mental" illness, like other types of illness, has physical causes.

When we don't understand why one combat veteran gets PTSD and another doesn't, when we don't understand why, under stressful work conditions, one co-worker succumbs to depression and another doesn't, that makes it possible, and easier, for some to blame those who are ill, and say: "See, it's all in your head!"

But that's exactly why this recent discovery is so significant. Because this new finding now says: "No, it's not in your head! It's not your fault! The way your brain functions, there is a physical reason why you show the symptoms and others don't!"

So yes, there is a new hope now â"" because now we actually can begin to see, measure â"" and understand â"" the physical workings of the brain.

There is hope that we are at the beginning of a path that can lead us to better, more effective treatments for a whole range of disorders and illnesses that are seen as "mental" today.

When scientists see more in detail what electrical changes happen in the brain during a certain brain disorder, they can understand why, for example, a drug works and another doesn't for a particular patient. They can also find ways to reduce the side effects that a drug has on that patient. Perhaps they can also come up with new drugs, which are more effective and have fewer side effects.

And, finally, there is now hope that, eventually, we'll be able to cure some mental illnesses altogether.

And why not? We have been able to do that for so many illnesses that, at one time in the past, were thought to be impossible to cure because no one understood their physical causes.

Then, perhaps, we will also discard from the name of these illnesses the label "mental" â"" and, with it, all the stigma we attach to that label today!