We often hear that elevated or decreased levels of certain chemicals are associated with mental illness. When you run across such statements, notice how slickly “are associated with” is treated as though it means “causes.” That’s fast talk.
Though high or low levels of certain chemicals are associated with mental illness, and though we know that they may be a result of it, there is no evidence whatsoever that they are ever a cause of it.
I know this because I have a degree in biology. Which is knowing far more than the average person but far less than the average researcher or clinician (I should hope). And when people who should know better don’t, I adjust my estimate of their credibility.
For the researchers and academics involved, there are grants to be got, papers to be published, and big names to be made. For the drug companies, there is money to be made manufacturing synthetic versions of these chemicals as “cures.”
So, just what are these “chemicals” that they are talking about?
They are transmitter substances, also known as neurotransmitters. Here’s how they work.
The nervous system is a system of wiring through which electrochemical current flows, much as in the motherboard circuitry of a computer. The wiring is made of cells, nerve cells. The connections between them are in the gray matter of the brain or spinal chord. From there, long fibers from some of these cells extend throughout the body.
Nerve cells don’t touch each other. So, how is the electrochemical current of a nerve impulse transmitted from one nerve cell to the next in a nerve pathway? When the impulse reaches the end of a stimulated nerve cell, that cell secretes a chemical into the gap between it and the next nerve cell.
This chemical is the transmitter substance. When enough of it accumulates in the gap – zap – the next nerve cell is stimulated by it.
Now, if another nerve impulse comes along before all the transmitter substance still in the gap has broken down, the new impulse could be weak and still get the next nerve cell to fire, because it would be using transmitter substance leftover from the previous impulse.
Do you see what happens here? The more you use a certain pathway, the more transmitter substance in the gaps accumulates. Then some researcher comes along, runs some tests, and says, “You have an elevated level of blah, blah, blah.”
Oh, my! But that is no disease. It is your brain working the way it is supposed to work. Indeed, this is what gives us memory – transmitter substances that build up and remain virtually permanently in a gap – like the one that remembers your birthday.
There are many different transmitter substances. They go by names like norepinephrine, noradrenaline, dopamine, and so forth. Each group/type of nerve fiber seems to rely on its own type of transmitter substance for nerve impulse transmission.
Here is an example.
After the death of someone near and dear, we are normally depressed for a while. The sad feelings and thoughts of grief cause the brain cells in those thought pathways to produce certain neurotransmitters in the transmission of these currents through the circuits they belong to. As the concentration of these neurotransmitters builds, it takes less and less stimulus to cause that sinking feeling we get in grief. So, the increased level of the "depressing" neurotransmitters makes us think more depressed thoughts, releasing more of these neurotransmitters that make us feel depressed and . . . . You can see where this is going. Runaway feedback into a vicious cycle.
At this point, some clinician could come along, run some tests, and say, “You have an elevated level of blah, blah, blah.”
But the elevated level of that chemical didn’t CAUSE your depression, did it? It is the RESULT of your depression.
The brain, however, is a marvelous organ with many built-in controls. For example, high levels of these "depressing" neurotransmitters also feeds back to lower the threshold for stimulation in the circuitry that makes us laugh. In other words, Nature endows us with a chemistry that enhances our sense of humor at such times. Things seem funnier. Not only during times of grief, but during times of trauma and great stress. This is what's responsible for the phenomenon known as "foxhole humor."
This counterbalancing mechanism is an excellent example of how the body protects and heals itself. So, normally, after our loss we get back into the rhythm of life and its distractions. We laugh again. Over time our happier thoughts and our natural desire to be happy gradually bring the concentrations of those "depressing" neurotransmitters down to normal again. This is why the depression caused by such events is viewed as normal (and perhaps beneficial in some ways) unless it lasts too long and runs too deep. Temporary medication with drugs that restore the balance quicker can help.
But, of course, a person disposed to depression by habitual thinking patterns or some ongoing cause will soon become depressed again when drug therapy is stopped.
Many illegal drugs have their effect by mimicking transmitter substances. Which should go to show the danger in artificially jacking up the level of a transmitter substance without knowing the effect of that high a level or how it may affect the levels of other, interactive transmitter substances.
In other words, it’s nothing to mess with. Indeed, you know all those powerful bug killers? Guess how they kill? By messing with neurotransmitters.
We accumulate gray matter as we use more and more of the potential pathways in our nervous system, making these connections. The brain continues to develop in response to our use of it at least until our mid-twenties and continues to change throughout life.
In many ways, we make it what it is by how we use it to move and think.
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