News & Politics

New Theory on Mental Illness Misses Bigger Picture

Why is it so much easier to find funds for studying mental disorders than it is to find funds to help the people who live with those disorders?

This past week, the New York Times heralded a new theory of brain development as providing "psychiatry with perhaps its grandest working theory since Freud." ("In a Novel Theory of Mental Disorders, Parents' Genes Are in Competition," November 11, 2008) Even if the theory is flawed, the Times noted, it is "likely to provide new insights into the biology of mental disease."

The new theory posits that an "evolutionary tug of war between genes from the father's sperm and the mother's egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways." If there's a bias toward the father, the developing brain is pushed along the autistic spectrum; if the bias is toward the mother, the growing brain moves along what researchers call "the psychotic spectrum" (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression).

While the more we know about mental disorders, the more we may be able to find useful treatments for them, this new theory seems, in fact, to reinforce old, unproven deterministic notions: that mental disorders are primarily biological and/or chemical and genetic in origin and course, and that since (if!) they are, what follows is that "science" will some day be able to "cure" them by treating and/or manipulating our genes (or biology, or chemistry).

Jay Neugeboren is the author of 17 books, including several award-winning books on psychiatric disorders (Imagining Robert, Tranforming Madness).
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