Lecture 9: Mental Illness

This week’s quiz was about attention while the lecture was on mental illness. Mood disorders seem to the most expensive in costs for society, Europe spends billions due to mental health issues of the general population. 5% of taxes go to psychological disorders. Mood disorders apparently have the highest cost because of indirect costs like sick leave, early retirement etc.

The mental health of children shapes them when they are adults. It has been suggested by earlier researchers that humans are just a sum of their experiences throughout their life and the choices they make are only a consequence of the events that have occurred in their life. This theory was debunked when a researcher proved that humans have conscious thinking and make decisions based on other factors rather than the sum of their life events.

We learnt that amygdala of the brain drives a stress response. It activates the hypothalamus which releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone acts on the pituitary gland which releases ACTH into the blood which causes the adrenal gland to release cortisol into the blood which helps to restore the energy lost in the stress response (increased heart rate, heightened senses, etc.). The hippocampus has glucocorticoid receptors sensitive to cortisol and this inhibits the stress response. When the stressful event is over, cortisol levels fall and the body returns to normal.

A moderate amount of cortisol is good for the body, however, a prolonged stress response accumulates large amounts of cortisol in the blood which causes the hippocampus cells to die. This is why patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a lower volume of hippocampus cells. Hence, the patient is stuck in a vicious cycle of increased cortisol build up which kills more hippocampus cells which increases the level of cortisol.

There are two possible treatment plans. Psychotherapy involves talking to a professional counsellor about thoughts, feelings and reflections. Taking medications are an alternative treatment which include pills such as Benzodiazepines which bind to a site on GABAa receptors making it more responsive to GABA neurotransmitter causing the brain to slow down. Another medication is SSRIs that inhibit the re-uptake of serotonin.

One question on mind is how can hippocampus cells be regenerated? What diet or methods could help that? Is it reversible? Are people exposed to extreme trauma doomed to live a life with excess cortisol?


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