Mad Science - The Science of mental illness Arona Jones: Senior Science Editor
Mental illness can be just as serious as any physical debilitation, and yet it is rarely treated with the same respect. It is more difficult to diagnose, and much more difficult to treat.
There is philosophical disagreement over whether mental illness is a physical illness of the brain, or something entirely distinct. Many people, eminent American mental health researcher Thomas Insel among them, consider it to be the former. For Insel, mental disorders are no different to something such as heart disease, the distinction being the organ affected is the brain rather than the heart.
Maybe someday we will be able to diagnose mental illness with a set of physical tests, just as we can diagnose leukaemia with a blood test, but we have a long way to go before that happens. The brain as a whole is fairly poorly understood by medical science as it stands; that said though, rapid advancements are being made. We are beginning to build a picture and an understanding of how the brain functions - or indeed, dysfunctions.
To this end, many other scientists say that to focus purely on the physical when dealing with mental illness would be a mistake - a potentially dangerous one. Personality traits and environmental change are believed to be just as easily responsible as physical faults within the brain.
Jerome Wakefield compares the brain to a computer, with the flesh and internal circuitry the hardware, and our thoughts the human equivalent of software. Just as computer hardware and software can both fail or fault, so can either part of our brain.
The current diagnosis and treatment for mental illnesses are quite crude - just as treatment for other diseases used to be. Inevitably, the weight of research thrown at the problem will develop our understanding; help us to map out the tangled pathways of our infinitely complex brains. Thus, one more piece of the scientific puzzle will slowly fall into place. The puzzle that encompasses understanding what makes the universe tick - and why. We have come so far; yet, to stretch the metaphor, we’re still sorting through the box trying to find the edge pieces.