Monday, September 28, 2015

Brain Disorders and Brain Health

In my book Never Give Up I talk about a range of illnesses which are beginning to be classified as neurobiological disorders--these are "mental illnesses" that are rooted (in at least some respect) in chemical imbalances in the brain or the failure of the brain to carry out properly its delicate and complex operations.

We know that neurological disorders can cause people to have chronic "tics" or muscle spasms. Well, it appears that on a more subtle and "invisible" level the same kind of disturbances in brain functioning can cause "mental spasms"--quirks, repetitions, or distortions in the imaging, impressive, and expressive activity of the brain that accompanies our thinking.

Thinking is fundamentally spiritual, but in the human being who is a mysterious union of soul and body it is something that is done in conjunction with (and is therefore affected by) physiological processes. We all know that drinking alcoholic beverages affects the brain and thereby inclines us to perceive things differently and even to "think" differently. Surely it is possible that all kinds of circumstances that we do not yet understand may affect (and afflict) the brain in more subtle ways. These circumstances may even be rooted in genetic factors, which seems to be the case in more obvious, visible disorders.

Certainly all this has become something of a fad in some sectors of the psychiatric field. These kind of problems are overdiagnosed. They are also overmedicated, or many of the medicines made for them are clumsy and ineffective. Having said that, it must be admitted that the great achievement of modern clinical psychiatric medicine has been the discovery of the neurological aspect of many mental illnesses.

Moreover, advanced brain imaging technology is confirming the clinical evidence. We are just beginning to learn the need for careful and attentive medical care for the most important and mysterious organ in our body, the brain.

We have learned that the brain can't be ignored. Psychological therapy has many values, but it won't help a person's liver or kidneys to heal. The brain is also an organic reality. It too requires physiological attention and assistance when necessary.

"Talk treatment" cannot cure a person with Tourette's Syndrome. Now we also know that it won't cure the underlying condition of a person with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The same thing can be said for many (though not all) types of depression, anxiety disorders, and that increasingly expanding category of complex conditions called "bi-polar" disorder.

Psychotherapy has its place in facilitating healing in the realm of human experience. It is not irrelevant by any means to neurobiological disorders. It can help build habits of "brain hygiene," help construct and maintain a healthy environment for brain functioning, and address the life damage that comes as a consequence of these complex brain disorders. Certain types of therapy may even help stimulate healing processes within the brain itself. But what we know for certain is that in these situations the brain, as a physiological entity, also needs medical help.

At the same time, we are learning that the brain can't simply be nuked with medications that are designed to counteract artificially its chemical or functional imbalances. "Brain medicine" is a delicate art of integrative health care, and here it is especially clear that it is impossible to be effective without treating the patient as a whole, i.e. as a human person.

It is also worth mentioning here the advances being made in the treatment of brain injuries, e.g. "concussions." If anything good has come out of the recent wars (though, tragically, not good for those who have had to endure them), it is the advancement in the understanding of brain injuries, how they can occur, what permanent damage they may cause, and how they may be related to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Having suffered and recovered from a major concussion in a car accident in 2005, my personal hunch is that "minor" brain injuries--perhaps even on the internal level--probably happen much more frequently than any of us realize.

The brain is, truly, a remarkable, resilient and durable instrument, for all its complexity and delicacy. I believe there are vast possibilities for healing the brain and supporting the overall health of the brain. We are only beginning to discover them.