Our brains and mental health

What happens when our brains go wrong? Frances Samah


Our brains are something fascinating, it can send information up to an impressive 268 miles per hour. This is faster than Formula 1 race cars which top out at 240 mph.  Our brains can generate up to 50,000 thoughts per day.  Twenty-five percent of the body’s cholesterol resides within the brain. Cholesterol is an integral part of every brain cell. Without adequate cholesterol, brain cells die, however, we do have an estimated 86 billion of them.  Our brains are 73% water. It takes only 2% dehydration to affect your attention, memory and other cognitive skills.  So, remember to always keep hydrated.

It makes us slightly irrational when emotional, and it makes up have the stuff we perceive.  When it starts to go wrong, we could end up with a neurological or a mental disorder.  Neurological disorders are due to physical problems or a disruption in the central nervous system, like damage to our hippocampus (which is essential in the process and retrieval of memory) which can cause amnesia or degradation of the sub-stantia nigra that can lead to Parkinson’s disease.  Neurological disorders often manifest themselves with physical issues, like seizures or pain.

Mental disorders are abnormalities of thinking, behaviour or feeling and don’t necessarily have a physical cause.  It’s often described using a computer analogy, so a neurological disorder is a hardware problem, whereas a mental disorder is a software problem (however, in reality, it’s nowhere near as simple as this).


So what is a mental disorder?


Our incredible brains are made up of neurons forming connections that produce functions derived from countless genetic processes and learned experiences.  But we are all different, so a mental disorder is described as patterns of thinking or behaviour that cause discomfort and suffering, or an impaired ability to function in what is deemed a ‘normal’ society.

It is believed 1 in 4 of us have a mental health disorder, examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

Let’s look at depression more closely.  Depression in the UK is one of the most common mental health disorders with 7.8% of people meeting the criteria for diagnosis.  It also affects our economy as depression has been estimated to cause one-fifth of days lost from work.  Most people go through periods of feeling down, but when you’re depressed, you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days.

Some people think depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. Depression isn’t a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”.  Depression affects people in different ways and can cause a wide variety of symptoms.

They range from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful.

It’s really difficult to establish the underlying cause of depression.  The most common theory from a neuroscience perspective is the monoamine hypothesis.  Many neurotransmitters are types of monoamines, and people who have been diagnosed with depression have a reduced level of them.  And this is how treatment was developed, anti-depressants prescribed by the GP increase the availability of these monoamines in the brain.  Serotonin (a monoamine) is a neurotransmitter involved in processing anxiety, mood, sleep and is believed to help regulate other neurotransmitter systems, so altering its level may have a knock-on effect.  So these anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), and they work by stopping the removal of serotonin from synapses after its released, increasing overall levels.  Other antidepressants work similarly with other monoamines, such as dopamine or noradrenaline.

Nevertheless, this isn’t without criticisms, when taking antidepressants, they are immediately increasing the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, but they can take weeks to have any effect.  This suggests it can’t solely be the result of low levels of neurotransmitters.  This could be down to neurogenesis and mood only improves as nerves grow and form new connections.


What’s the purpose of this?


Sadly, the truth is that many people still persist in thinking it’s easy to ignore or override dominant debilitating mood disorders that affect people to the very core of their being, sometimes even until they are unrecognisable even to themselves.

Mental health is more than a result of a chemical imbalance, factors such as genetic vulnerability, severe life stressors, substances you may take (some medications, drugs and alcohol) and medical conditions can affect the way your brain regulates your moods.

Everyone’s different, and it’s often a combination of factors that can contribute to developing depression. It’s important to remember that you can’t always identify the cause of depression or change difficult circumstances. The most important thing is to talk to someone and seek support.

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