Mental Disorders as Brain Disorders

At a recent TEDxCaltech talk, Dana Alliance Executive Committee member Tom Insel, M.D., began by offering some sobering yet motivating statistics:

  • Suicide is the most common cause of death for individuals ages 18 to 25.
  • There are 38,000 suicides every year; one every five minutes.
  • 90 percent of suicides are directly related to brain diseases and disorders.
  • Over the past 30 years, the mortality rates for heart disease, stroke, Leukemia and AIDS have decreased by as much as 80 to 90 percent, while suicide mortality rates remain the same.
  • Neuropsychiatric disorders cause the highest morbidity among all medical causes including 30 percent of all disability, mainly because such conditions affect young individuals who must manage them for a lifetime.

Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), says the “most important transformation” needed for approaching brain disorders and improving those statistics isn’t treatment; it’s conceptual: We need to think of mental and behavioral disorders as brain disorders. “For brain disorders, behavior is the last thing to change,” he says. In other words, there are usually complex chemical, biological, and physiological changes in neuron circuitry occurring in the brain years before a brain disorder or disease presents symptoms. The term “brain” more clearly frames mental and behavioral symptoms as ultimate outcomes—not causes—of alterations in the brain.

Insel asked: Why wait until symptoms are noticeable to address brain disorders when changes in neuron activity and brain function can be detected early? He pointed out that doctors don’t wait until a heart attack happens to begin treatment for heart disease; 1.1 million lives are saved every year due to early action. Classifying mental disorders as brain disorders will allow for a similar preemptive approach and for more research on preventative treatments.

To read more about Tom Insel’s opinions and views, and current trends in neuroscience, follow his NIMH “Director’s Blog.”

– Amanda Bastone

3 responses

  1. It’s not the term that is important, but the issue itself. Recently I contributed to an article on Forbes by Cheryl Snapp Connor. Someone posted an intense and thoughtful response about the use of the term “stigma.” You can read the article and the response here:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/cherylsnappconner/2013/05/14/how-mental-illness-makes-some-executives-stronger/?utm_source=alertsnewcomment&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20130515
    This is a subject that I am passionate about and which needs greater discussion within the mainstream.

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