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How Mental Illness Affects the Brain Chemistry

Shrewsbury, MA

Mental illnesses are easily the most stigmatized and neglected disorders in medicine. Even though mental illnesses have been acknowledged since 1100 BC, the lack of understanding has led to negative stereotypes around mental illnesses. However, as the 21st century begins to spread awareness about mental health, new science is coming to light. Many think mental disorders come from environmental factors such as abuse or trauma. However, there is a biological component that also influences mental illnesses.

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior. Mental illnesses are medical conditions, and therefore, come in many different forms and there are many different types as well. There are nearly 300 different mental disorders, some of the most commonly known ones being anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.

Something to keep in mind is the impact mental illness has on the brain. They can drastically affect brain function which results in extreme symptoms such as panic attacks, mood swings, and self-harm. Mental disorders are nothing more than medical conditions that alter the body. However, since the brain is the most complex part of our body, mental disorders are just as complex.

Brain, mental illness, brain scan, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD
Brain Scans of Different Mental Illnesses

The brain controls every action and reaction in and out of our body. Mental disorders disrupt the complex communication system in our brains, altering the way we think and feel. Neurons are messengers in the brain that send chemical signals to other neurons to help our body function. Many scientists believe that some mental illnesses stem from miscommunication between neurons. Moreover, if the brain produces too many bad emotions it will constantly eat away at its mental fortitude, hurting one’s mental health.

brain, diagram, amygdala, hippocampus, cerebellum, cerebrum, brain stem
Diagram of the Brain

For example, studies have shown that the amygdala and the hippocampus are smaller in people with depression. The amygdala regulates emotions while the hippocampus regulates memories. Together, they work to translate how we react and express our emotions to outside situations. Over time, negative feelings can shrink these parts of the brain and overall reduce brain activity. On the other hand, people with anxiety have an overactive amygdala that can lead to exaggerated fears and increased anxiety. When a person feels stressed or afraid, the amygdala releases stress hormones. Hormonal imbalances can lead to anxiety.

Similarly, people with schizophrenia have decreased gray matter volume and altered neural connectivity. The gray matter of the brain is the outside layer and plays a significant role in processing information such as emotions and movements. Therefore, a decrease in the gray matter can lead to losing control of fine motor skills, which is common with schizophrenia. The decrease in brain matter is different among schizophrenia patients, which is why doctors have schizophrenia sub-groups to better treat patients.

Clearly, mental illnesses are biological issues. However, the lack of understanding can lead to negative stereotypes that make it hard for people to get treatment. By understanding the science behind mental illnesses, we can eliminate the stigma around them. Mental disorders may be more complex than other medical conditions, but they are treatable nonetheless.

Diagnosing mental illnesses is hard because the symptoms can overlap between different mental disorders. Moreover, there isn’t any test or labs than can show mental illnesses. However, just like any field in medicine, treatment needs to start somewhere.

neuroimaging, Brain imaging, brain scan

The field of psychiatry is on the brink of revolutionary discoveries that will change the way doctors diagnose and treat mental illnesses. For example, doctors have found specific genes that are linked to mental disorders and brain abnormalities that increase a person's risk of developing PTSD after a distressing event.

Additionally, devices with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) help doctors measure the electrical and chemical activity of the brain, allowing them to see the difference between a normal brain and a brain with a mental illness. Even though more developments need to be made, understanding the science behind mental illnesses can lead to more people getting the treatment they deserve.

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