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A Neuroscience Student on Mental Health

Monday 13-06-2016 - 00:00
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By Sabine Rannio

Mental disorders are the most common and most misunderstood clinical conditions worldwide. About one in four will be affected by a mental health condition at least once. Genetic predispositions play a significant role but there are plenty of environmental risk factors, and it could happen to anyone. So how come no one is really sure about what mental health actually is?

Let’s start with the basics: The human brain weighs about three pounds and is made up of neurons, their connections and supportive cells. There are billions of neurons in the human brain forming trillions of connections and each and every single thing you sense or do changes this complex network by forming new connections and breaking unused ones in a process called synaptic plasticity. As neurons communicate via electrical and chemical signals - action potentials and neurotransmitters respectively - an optimal chemical environment allows your brain to process information sufficiently without you even noticing.

Major breakthroughs in technology such as fMRI, PET scan and EEG now enable scientists to watch and monitor brain activity of a live person in order to map patterns of neuronal activity. By understanding the chemical and electrical composition of normal activity, scientists can then identify pathological conditions and vice versa. This means we can now SEE depression, PTSD or schizophrenia and we can also observe why and how different types of psychotherapy work. Even more fascinating, these technologies have proven to be promising diagnostic tools in order to identify pathological brain activity even before symptoms show. So, just because you can’t see a mental condition the way you can see a broken leg doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Now, neuroscience might be a relatively young field but essentially, neuroscientists aim to bridge the gap between psychology and medicine. For centuries, the brain and the mind have been regarded as two separate entities but physiological processes in the nervous system and behavior are interdependent and so should not be examined individually. By analysing the two-way- relationship between physiology of the brain and behavior, neuroscientists try to understand how the two interact to draw the line between normal behavior and a pathological condition and help patients in the best way possible.

But neuroscience alone cannot solve all mental health problems. According to a 2015 study by MQ, mental health research receives only 5.5% of the total amount spent on UK health research, which equals to £9.25 per person affected in comparison to £1,571 in cancer research. Why is that? How come that a broken leg earns you a lot of sympathy whereas anorexia nervosa only triggers stupid comments such as “get over yourself” or “just eat a little more”? Mental disorders are brain disorders and therefore physical conditions just like cancer or a broken leg and until we finally start to accept that, there will be a severe lack of funding, long waiting lists and many more suicides.

So, mind your head and what is in it because if neuroscience has taught us one thing, it is that our brain is way more fascinating than we ever could have imagined and there is so much more to learn.


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