Your Brain is More than a Bag of Chemicals
“Raise your hand if you think that basic research on fruit flies has anything to do with understanding mental illness in humans,” began David Anderson at TEDxCaltech.
Not many hands were raised. Anderson went on to explain that research using fruit flies is giving us valuable insight into the brain circuitry of emotions and mental illness, proving that neural underpinnings are more complicated that we may think.
“We tend to believe — and the popular press aids and abets this view — that [psychiatric disorders] are a chemical imbalance in the brain,” says Anderson. “As if the brain were some kind of bag of chemical soup full of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.”
Psychiatric Medications Do More Harm Than Good
“The brain circuitry of mental disorders are complex, and yet the medications we’ve used to treat them for the past two decades work from a simple model — they treat every part of the brain as if it were the same. This is one of the big reasons that current psychiatric medications don’t work well,” says Anderson, “and why they have many unpleasant side effects that lead many to avoid them.
“Using them to treat a complex psychiatric disorder is like trying to use engine oil by opening up the can and pouring it all over the engine block—some of it will dribble into the right place, but a lot of it will do more harm than good.
“What we need to do is use our ingenuity and our scientific knowledge to try to design a new generation of treatments that are targeted to specific neurons and specific regions of the brain that are affected in particular psychiatric disorders.”[the_ad id=”1196″]
Stupid Fruit Flies
To test the normal function of dopamine, some fruit flies were deprived of it, placed into a tube and had air blown on them. It was observed that the fruit flies that lacked dopamine did not calm down as fast as the normal fruit flies.
To teach the fruit flies to avoid a certain smell, electric shock was used and those flies retaining dopamine quickly learned to avoid the odor where they would receive an electric shock. The non-dopamine flies didn’t learn.
Does a lack of dopamine lead to learning disabilities in humans also? At least this experiment probably indicates that dopamine is important in the brain for learning and stress relief.
Although fruit flies don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves (or their faces), we are able to observe their varying responses when their brains are deprived of certain chemicals.
A Healthy Brain
So, although the brain is certainly not just a bag of chemicals, all the vital ones are present in a healthy brain–whether fruit flies or human. The best way to balance those chemicals is by making sure your brain receives the best nutrition available.