Mind Games: Are Cyberspace and Psychiatric Drugs Messing with Our Heads?
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At least 10 percent of all Americans over six-years-old are currently on antidepressants. That’s more than 35 million people, double the number from 15 years ago. Meanwhile, anti-psychotics have eclipsed cholesterol treatments as the country’s fastest selling and most profitable drugs, even though half the prescriptions treat disorders for which they haven’t been proven effective. At least 5 million children and adolescents use them, in part because more kids are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
So, are a growing number of people experiencing psychological troubles? Have we just become better at recognizing them? Or is some other dynamic at work.
One possibility is that the criteria for what constitutes a mental illness or disability may have expanded to the point that a vast number appear to have clinical problems. But there’s an even more insidious development: the drugs being used to treat many of the new diagnoses could cause long-term effects that persist after the original trouble has been resolved. That’s the case made by Robert Whitaker in his new book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America.
Speaking of long-term impacts on the brain, we’re also heading toward a world where humans are directly linked with computers that profoundly influence their perceptions and ideas. Despite many potential benefits, there is danger here as well. Rather than simply augmenting our memories by providing neutral information, the brain-computer connection may lead people into separate realities based on their assumptions and politics.
Brain-altering drugs and digital “indoctrination” – a potent combination. Together, they pose a potential threat not only to the stability of many individuals but of society itself. Seduced by the promise that our brains can be managed and enhanced without serious side-effects, we may be creating a future where psychological dysfunction becomes a post-modern plague and powerful forces use cyberspace to reshape “reality” in their private interest.
Do prescription drugs create new mental problems? And if so, how could it be happening? For Whitaker the answer lies in the effects of drugs on neurotransmitters, a process he calls negative feedback. When a drug blocks neurotransmitters or increases the level of serotonin, for instance, neurons initially attempt to counteract the effects. When the drug is used over a long period, however, it can produce “substantial and long-lasting alterations in neural function,” says Steven Hyman, former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. The brain begins to function differently. Its ability to compensate starts to fail and side effects created by the drug emerge.
What comes next? More drugs and, along with them, new side effects, an evolving chemical mixture often accompanied by a revised diagnosis. According to Marcia Angell, former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, it can go this way: use of an antidepressant leads to mania, which leads to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which leads to the prescription of mood stabilizers. Through such a process people can end up taking several drugs daily for many years.
What may happen after that is deeply troubling. Researcher Nancy Andreasen claims the brain begins to shrink, an effect she links directly to dosage and duration. “The prefrontal cortex doesn’t get the input it needs and is being shut down by drugs,” she has explained in The New York Times. “That reduces the psychotic symptoms.” But the pre-frontal cortex gradually atrophies.
Anyone who has been on the psychiatric drug roller coaster understands some of the ride’s risks and how hard it can be to get off. But the new implication is that we may be experiencing a medically-induced outbreak of brain dysfunction caused by the exploding use of drugs. One big unanswered question at the moment: What does Big Pharma really know, and when did they learn it?