I’ve posted quite a few scholarly articles on mental health, in part, because it’s cool. I like to know what’s going on in the body and what current research is being done. I have two other reasons. Wouldn’t it be great to know why people aren’t feeling well mentally (etiology) and, hence, remove the stigma?
How much stigma is around dementia and early-onset Alzheimer’s? Behaviorally speaking, it looks a lot like a brain-based mental disorder. Why? Brain-based mental disorders and Alzheimer’s both involve the brain becoming “ill”. We don’t see adults on television shows saying things like, “Oh, that old person is so crazy! They got dementia! Let’s just lock ’em up in the Looney Bin for the Aged.” I’m not at all implying that ageism is not a problem in American society. The elderly are not treated with nearly as much respect as they deserve. What I am saying, however, is that certain brain-based diseases are widely accepted by the general public as legitimate illnesses requiring medical intervention. It’s even generally understood that those diseases affect other parts of the body, in large part, because the disease in question began in the brain.
So, if one were to see an older person engaging in odd behaviors in public, one doesn’t usually jump to conclusions and say things like, “That person must be high.” No. More often than not, members of the general public will say, “I wonder if that person has dementia. Do they need help?” Even if someone is relatively uneducated, the notion of dementia is so well-known that I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, does that person have that thing that elderly people get where their brain starts to go? I hope I never get that. I don’t want to die like that.” There is a general awareness that a brain-based illness exists in the elderly population and that a brain-based illness can manifest as odd behaviors. The age of the person is what provides the context. Also, rarely are people afraid of the elderly so fear is not present to drive judgment.
For those of us in the know, we are fully aware that bipolar and schizophrenia spectrum disorders are biologically-based brain disorders. One can liken schizophrenia to Multiple Sclerosis in terms of how it originates in the brain and goes on to affect the entire person. There have been many theories suggested over the years as to the possible etiology of the disease. Personally, I’ve liked the theory around pruning because it was the only one that adequately explained the loss of white matter in the brain. When I tell people what happens to the brain of someone with schizophrenia, they are usually shocked. The loss of white matter and neural connections is what is causing most of the positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. This is indeed a neurodegenerative disease. Once someone fully understands the disease process of schizophrenia, they usually feel less inclined to stigmatize people who carry that diagnosis much like they don’t stigmatize a person with MS or Parkinson’s disease.
Here is a new landmark study to help you in your efforts to educate yourself and others on the possible etiology of schizophrenia. Yes! That’s right. The etiology. In short, it’s a pruning problem.
If you don’t feel like wading through this study, then Gizmodo succinctly summarized the study in layman’s terms here:
Here’s a snippet:
“On the surface, the culprit behind schizophrenia sounds a bit odd. It’s a variant in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC)—a set of proteins that decorate the surface of your cells—that binds to foreign molecules and presents them to the immune system. But McCarroll’s new study, which looked at the DNA of nearly 29,000 individuals with schizophrenia and 36,000 without, showed that this particular MHC variant causes the expression of a gene known as C4 to go into overdrive.
And it so happens that C4 is present at neuronal synapses, the connections between neurons that transfer chemical and electrical signals in your brain. On a cellular level, too much C4 can reduce the number of synaptic connections, a process known as “synaptic pruning.” On a human-scale, this can lead to schizophrenia.”
There you have it. The more educated we are about the etiology behind mental illness, the more we can educate others, thusly, removing the stigma and bringing the general public up to speed. If other neurodegenerative diseases are acceptable and not stigmatized, then biologically-based brain disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder should be found among them. It just takes education.
A lot of education.