The human brain is a fascinating organ. It is what allows us to think, feel and act the way we do. But, more than that, it acts as a central processing unit connecting all the parts of the body together. Psychologists and neuroscientists over the decades have found the most effective way to discover how the brain works is when something goes wrong.
Injuries, illnesses and disorders that affect the brain allow them to assess just how the brain works by highlighting the changes that these can cause. These studies have been further enhanced by developing technology. Modern research uses technology to further understand these disordered minds and us an even closer look at just how the brain works.
In this book summary readers will discover:
- How brains that don’t work show us exactly how they normally do
- What Autism reveals
- Mood disorders and chemical imbalances
- What causes the dramatic effects of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease
- Faulty proteins, Alzheimer’s and dementia
Key lesson one: How brains that don’t work show us exactly how they normally do
The field of psychiatry was started in 1790 by a physician named Philippe Pinel. It was Pinel who first suggested mental disorders or disorders of the brain had physical causes. Now we know that there are a number of factors that can cause these disorders and we have been able to further assess the effects of these disorders. By seeing the changes in a person’s behaviour and emotions, it reveals how the brain works when unaffected.
The brain is made up of nerve cells called neurons that form detailed networks which connect our bodies to our brain. They are able to communicate due to electrical signals and chemical molecules known as neurotransmitters. These networks are found to be compromised when mental disorders occur. They can be completely unable to communicate or even hyperactive in some cases. Researchers now use technology to further investigate why and how these networks are affected. These include genetic research whereby genes are added, deleted or manipulated in mice to assess their implications. This research has successfully shown that Huntington’s disease is caused by a single gene mutation and that depression involves multiple genes and environmental factors.
Brain imaging techniques like fMRI, for example, has also greatly helped scientists visualize the brain in action. By being able to see which areas of the brain are active, scientists are able to determine not only which areas are connected but also whether they are functioning properly.
Key lesson two: What Autism reveals
Have you heard of the theory of mind? It refers to when kids are able to understand that everyone around them has a mind of their own. This is what helps us understand people’s behaviour and helps us be the social creatures that we are. However, for kids with autism, their experiences are different. There are many levels of autism which is why it is referred to as a spectrum but most kids with autism struggle with theory of mind and thus communication. Reading other people’s emotions and responding appropriately is something that they have difficulty with. They also prefer being alone and are sensitive to changes in their environments. This often means that they like playing with the same toys and following the same routines. It is these characteristics that also make autistic people highly proficient in specialized fields like math and art.
The symptoms of autism originate from differences in brain development. Some parts of the brain do not develop properly and to compensate for this, other parts of the brain develop prematurely. It was Leslie Brothers who found that the areas of the brain that were affected in autistic kids were responsible for emotion, language, communication, visual perception and movement. These are the areas that make up the so-called social brains of humans. They help us process information about others. It is because of the issues in these areas that autistic kids have difficulty with being social and recognizing faces and movements. This is confirmed by brain imaging which showed that when watching a person walk, an autistic kids social brain was not activated which is what happens in those without autism.
It is because of these differences that autism allows scientists to understand the social features of our brains and investigate them further.
Key lesson three: Mood disorders and chemical imbalances
Our emotions play a huge role in the way that we experience the world. They also help us navigate our lives and recognize what we really want. Thus, when something goes wrong with our emotions, it causes us substantial harm. Mental disorders such as depression and PTSD cause the brain to get stuck in a cycle of negative emotions that leave people feeling low and unable to shake it off. The response we have to our emotions can either be something we were born with or something we have learned over time due to our experiences. Once these connections are made in our brains it is very difficult to change. This is why mood disorders are not easy to treat.
Emotional responses are controlled by the limbic system which is made up of the hypothalamus and amygdala. In most mood disorders like anxiety, depression and PTSD, the amygdala and hypothalamus are overactive and there is a chemical imbalance in the entire limbic system. High levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, is usually found and affects a person’s sleeping and eating habits. Further studies into antidepressants and how they work also showed that people with depression have lower levels of serotonin. Lack of this neurotransmitter means that neurons are compromised and information can not be transmitted readily.
Key lesson four: What causes the dramatic effects of schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease
Schizophrenia affects a number of regions in the brain and therefore causes significant effects on thoughts and behaviours. They have a tendency to experience vivid hallucinations and delusions that are seen as the major symptoms. However, people with schizophrenia also experience problems with their memory, suffer from a lack of motivation and even show signs of social withdrawal.
Schizophrenia usually originates from an excess of synaptic pruning. This is a process that occurs sometime around puberty. It is when our brain starts cutting down the multitude of synapses we have as children to make our mental processing more streamlined. With people with schizophrenia, this process is not carried out properly and thus connections don’t develop as they were supposed to. Research has found that the reason for this seems to be genetic with schizophrenics having a particular variant of gene C4. The simple overexpression of this gene causes more pruning to occur than necessary.
One feature of schizophrenia that has left many researchers surprised is the ability of people with schizophrenia have in creating amazing pieces of art. Cesare Lombroso was the first physician to publish a collection of art by schizophrenics in a book called Genius and Madness. In fact, throughout history, there have been many examples that link mental disorders with creativity. However, science has no explanation for this connection – yet.
An excess of dopamine has also been linked to schizophrenia. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in memory, movement and emotion. In contrast, people with Parkinson’s disease have a lack of dopamine. The neurons that produce dopamine are based in an area of the midbrain called substantia nigra. In people who have Parkinson’s disease, this area is compromised by faulty proteins. In the beginning, the neurons begin working excessively to try to compensate for this lack of dopamine but because of the abundance of faulty proteins, they begin to die off and can no longer produce any dopamine. The lack of dopamine is what causes the telltale tremor seen in Parkinson’s disease.
Key lesson five: Faulty proteins, Alzheimer’s and dementia
There are two systems responsible for memory in the brain. The explicit memory system is responsible for remembering people and events, and the implicit memory system is responsible for remembering learned motor tasks. When it comes to brain disorders that affect memory, the two most discussed are Alzheimer’s and dementia. Both disorders affect the hippocampus which is involved in the explicit memory system and both are caused by faulty proteins.
Normally, proteins fold in a specific shape that can fit into a specific receptor. Think of them like puzzle pieces, only the right protein can fit in a specific receptor. However, in patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the proteins fold incorrectly and begin to bunch up. These faulty proteins are referred to as prions. Prions start to occur first in the prefrontal cortex but with time begin to move to the hippocampus. This is why there is a gradual decrease in connections before they are killed off completely. The resulting effect is a gradual decrease in memory before they are lost completely.
The discovery of prions has opened up a whole new field of study. Possible treatments for these memory disorders can now be researched.
The key takeaway from The Disordered Mind is:
Our brains hold the keys to many mysteries. Changes in our brains have physical effects that, when studied, can tell scientists a lot about the way our brain works. Mental disorders have both genetic and environmental origins. However, looking specifically at the changes in the brain, the imbalances of chemicals and the resulting effects, one can begin to truly understand these disorders and look at ways to treat them more effectively. Historically, all scientists could do was observe. Now, with modern technology, not only has observation been made better but the possibilities of treatments and research has vastly expanded.
How can I implement the lessons learned in The Disordered Mind:
The brain plays an important role in the way our bodies function. Just like the rest of your body you also need to exercise your brain to keep it working optimally. There are numerous games and puzzles that are specifically designed to promote brain health. Why not give them a try and keep your brain healthy and happy!