The Brain and Mental Illness

 

by Marion Bono
by Marion Bono

THE BRAIN AND MENTAL ILLNESS

“What did I do to cause the illness to my loved one?”  This a common question of someone who thinks they are to blame for the mental illness. On the other hand, the person with the illness often blames a family member for their problems. The fact is NO ONE IS TO BLAME.

No one can cause another person to have a mental illness any more than a family member can cause another to have epilepsy, diabetes, Parkinson’s, or any such illness. The research on the brain is convincing that mental illness is not something that one person can do to another. Most of the current research is focused on schizophrenia.

One study shows two “working” brains, one with schizophrenia and one a “normal control.” The brain scan measures blood flow during a planning task. The pictures show that the normal control is able to use the frontal cortex (top of the brain) while performing the task, but the person with schizophrenia has a brain scan that is not “lighting up” in this region at all. Marked sluggishness in circulation and metabolism is typical in schizophrenia.

Other research in cortical dysfunction shows the following:

  • Difficulties in working (or short term) memory: People with schizophrenia have difficulty holding information in the mind from moment to moment. This problem is thought to cause the persistent cognitive disabilities experienced in the
  • Dramatic reduction in gray matter: A long- term study of teenagers with schizophrenia revealed a pattern of gray matter loss, beginning at the back of the brain and moving toward the frontal cortex. The chief investigator reported, “We were stunned to see a spreading wave of tissue loss that began in a small region of the brain. It moved across the brain like a forest fire, destroying more tissue as the disease progressed.”
  • Lack of cortical cell migration: During normal fetal growth brain cells migrate from deep within the brain to the outer layers, and some will undergo natural cell death. Examinations of autopsied brains of people with schizophrenia reveal an excess of cells remaining deep in the cortex. Either they did not ever migrate at all, or they were victims of over-programmed cell death. As a result, the cortex is not well formed.
  • Loss of glial cells in mood disorders: Post-mortem brain research has found a severe depletion of glial cells in brains of individuals with depression and bipolar disorder. The study indicated that 40-90 percent of the glial cells were gone.

Research on the size of the ventricles in the brain shows that the size of the ventricle (the fluid-filled cavities in the brain) in those diagnosed with schizophrenia is larger than average compared to normal controls. This means that the brain of the person with the illness is smaller. Individuals with the highest ventricle-to-brain ratio tend to have more sever forms of the disease, have poorer life adjustments before onset, and show a less favorable response to medication. This condition is also found in bipolar disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.

Research on limbic system dysfunction reveals that this powerful emotional processing center is implicated in every major mental illness and accounts for the excess emotionality in depression, bipolar illness, panic disorder, and OCD. This interferes with the normal control of response to anxiety-provoking stimuli.

Studies indicate that people with schizophrenia produce abnormal brain waves; therefore, the brain cannot tone down external stimuli or screen our unwanted stimuli. Nicotine from cigarettes or the patch provide brief relief from sensory overload – even tone down the voices in the head.

Some people who have undergone a psychotic episode say they are left feeling like they were hit by an 18 wheeler. It would be easier to accept the disability if they looked like they had been in an accident: wheelchair, crutches, casts, bandages. However, they still look intact.

This causes a lack of understanding and leads to questions. “Why are you sleeping so much?”  “Why can’t you go back to work?”  “Why can’t you just get it together?”

So……where is the HOPE? With education and understanding – with guidance from the professionals – with medication.

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Marion Bono, a member of NAMISWLA, facilitates a support group and teaches the Family-to-Family course, from which these articles are taken.
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