Last week, the headlines were blaring: Schizophrenia breakthrough as genetic study reveals link to brain changes! We heard that our best hope for treating “schizophrenia” is to understand it at a genetic level, and that this new breakthrough was now getting us really started on that mission, as it showed how a genetic variation could lead to the more intense pruning of brain connections which is often seen in those diagnosed with schizophrenia. We were told that this study was very important. “For the first time, the origin of schizophrenia is no longer a complete black box” was one quote. And the acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) described the study as “a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness”.
But is all this hype justified?
A “back story” to this article is that the NIMH has a long history of bias toward biological approaches to understanding mental and emotional difficulties, with an accompanying tendency to ignore even the most obvious evidence that these difficulties often relate to problems in living experienced by people. For example, even though numerous studies confirm that adverse childhood experiences make a later diagnosis of schizophrenia much more likely (more so than do any particular genes), the NIMH, on a website about the possible causes of schizophrenia, claims it’s “unknown” what kind of psychosocial factors might contribute to putting people at risk.
But it really isn’t a mystery. To people like NYU professor Brian Koehler who have been following both the biological and the psycho-social research for decades, it’s clear that the real story is that the biological differences we often see in people diagnosed with disorders like “schizophrenia” are often the result of stressful life events, not something that requires specific genes (even though it may be true that some genetic variations increase vulnerability to some limited degree.)
Below (with his permission) I am quoting a recent email from Brian Koehler, where he shared some of what we would be hearing from the media if the medio were being given the whole story. (His writing will make more sense to you if you understand that microglia are the type of brain cells active in the synaptic pruning that was being discussed, though only in reference to possible genetic causes, in the articles about the recent “breakthrough”…..) [click to continue…]