Talking therapy changes the brain

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have identified changes in the metabolic activity of a key brain region in patients successfully treated for depression with psychodynamic psychotherapy – talking therapy.

The study involved 16 patients with major depression who were offered weekly psychodynamic psychotherapy sessions. Each of the participants had unsuccessfully tried treatment for their depression with medication. Nine of the patients completed the course of psychotherapy and ‘almost all’ reported a greater than 50% reduction in their depression. Read more Talking therapy changes the brain

Schizophrenia and ‘The Insanity Virus’

A recent article in Discover links the development of schizophrenia with a human endogenous retrovirus, HERV-W. The article follows the work of E. Fuller Torrey and others in exploring a viral basis for schizophrenia.

Endogenous retroviruses are the remains of viral infections that occurred in past generations and that became encoded within the genome. In the case of HERV-W, this encoding may have taken place millions of years ago in an early primate ancestor. The HERV-W is one of several ancient viruses that have left their imprint upon the human genome.

It is currently believed that in most cases these viral remnants in our DNA are not expressed and have no effect upon humans. There is some evidence, though, that HERV-W may play a role in the development of both multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. The suggested pathway involves early infections that trigger the virus, leading to an immune reaction that damages our nervous system and that can eventually cause either of these conditions. Later infections may also play a role.

This is a line of research that could offer future ways of helping to prevent or to treat schizophrenia. As such it is an important endeavour. However, it is a common error to argue for a single cause for a complex, multi-factorial process. The Discover article falls into that trap, as shown by its title: ‘The Insanity Virus’. Even if the theories of Torrey and others prove to be correct, what they give us is a description of one factor in the development of schizophrenia. Other factors, including the individual’s environment, are also likely to play a role. The suggested pathway involves the human immune system, which has been shown to be heavily influenced by psychological factors such as stress. For that reason our early emotional life may play a crucial role in the development of schizophrenia, even within the causal model proposed by Torrey.

Torrey and other writers looking for a purely biological explanation for mental disorders discount the importance of the infant’s early experience of their world. This ignores the intimate ways in which our mind and body interact and effect each other’s development. It is an approach to human beings that is as one sided as the purely psychological. It is also a view that ignores the healing potential of therapeutic relationships.

Parenting rewires fathers’ brains

It seems that very specific structural changes take place in the brains of fathers and their young children when they interact with each other.

A recent article in Scientific American – The Brains of Our Fathers: Does Parenting Rewire Dads? – describes research on mice and rats that shows how close interactions between fathers and newborns produces significant neurological changes in both individuals. New neurons and neural connections are created when the fathers care for and play with their offspring. These new structures encode the relationship and help to give the bonding permanence.

All of our thoughts, including our perceptions and memories, both conscious and unconscious, are the result of activity in our brain cells and their billions of connections. We form new cells and new connections to encode new thoughts and memories, making those experiences available to us at a later time. The researchers found these changes took place in certain areas of the brains of rat fathers and offspring, but only if the pair were allowed contact with each other. Degu rats were used in this research because Degu fathers usually play an active role in the early care of their pups.

It would be less surprising if the brains of mother rats and their offspring underwent similar changes. Mothers and pups experience the intimate relationships of gestation and lactation, with their associated hormonal changes. What is interesting about the reported studies, is that these neural changes also take place in the brains of father rats and their offspring. The studies provide further examples of the intimate and ongoing ways in which the external world shapes the structure of our brains.

However, the article then goes on in a way that I think is less helpful. The latter part of the article speculatively links absent human fathers, neurological deficits and later behavioural problems in the offspring. This linkage has prompted a lively debate on the Scientific American website about the effects of absent human fathers and the relative importance of biological and social factors in developing problems such as delinquency and addiction.

To me it is a dangerous oversimplification to extrapolate from these Degu rat studies to say that the absence of a human father necessarily leads to neurological deficits, which in turn will lead to delinquency. Both stages of that argument are open to serious challenge.

For example, the neurological deficits seen in these studies may not have been the direct result of the absence of a father rat. Instead they could have been caused indirectly by the extra strain placed upon the mother by not having a partner to share in parenting duties. However, support for human mothers can come from a range of sources other than a father, for example, from a non-father partner or from an extended network of family or friends.

The article drastically simplifies any possible causal links between early neurological deficits and later delinquency. Many biological, psychological and social factors affect our journey from birth through to adulthood. The danger of this article is to imply a form of biological determinism; that the absence of a father tends to create an early and long-lasting, neurological abnormality that contributes to later delinquency.