In the TED talk titled “Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals,” David Anderson argues that psychiatry has historically upheld a faulty view of disorders as “chemical imbalances.” This view implies that the brain is bathed in a “chemical soup,” and that proper functioning merely requires that the right balance of ingredients be present. As a result, psychiatric disorders are often treated by applying a chemical compound globally to the entire brain, which, Anderson argues, is akin to refilling the engine oil of your car by pouring the oil 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.” To the contrary, Anderson points out that modern science has shown that chemicals are released and act in specific locations of the brain, and therefore disorders ought to be treated according to this specificity.
Anderson supports his argument with evidence gathered from model organisms. Model organisms allow scientists to infer cause-and-effect relationships between brain states and behaviors, because their brain states can be manipulated, which is impossible (and unethical) in humans. Fruit flies are one such model organism that has been used by Anderson and his team. While the simplicity of these creatures makes them useful for study, it is sometimes unclear whether findings in fruit flies or other model organisms can be generalized to complicated human conditions involving emotions.
To examine this issue, Anderson’s team used puffs of air to disturb fruit flies, and then observed their behavioral responses. The flies showed hyperactivity which appeared graded, meaning it varied according to the strength of the stimulus and tapered off over time—one of the hallmarks of emotional behavior. Anderson next discovered that mutant flies lacking a dopamine receptor showed increased hyperactivity and learning disorders, implying that these conditions may be related to the dopamine receptor.
These behaviors are also evident in sufferers of ADHD, which has also been linked to dysfunctions of dopamine receptors. This led Anderson to consider these mutant flies as a model for ADHD. Anderson notes that it is often believed that hyperactivity leads to learning disorders in ADHD, but that the relationship between the two effects actually remains unknown in humans. However, this relationship can be tested in flies. Anderson restored dopamine receptors to specific locations of the brain in the flies and found that hyperactivity and learning disorders could be dissociated, providing preliminary support that the same might be the case in humans.
Regardless of whether or not ADHD in humans mirrors the results Anderson found in fruit flies, his overall argument stands. Since different effects are related to specific locations in the brain, using drugs that affect the entire brain is ill advised when alternatives exist. Such treatments may restore “chemical balance” in one location and fix an issue, but they may also cause imbalance in other locations that were previously healthy, thus creating more problems. Hopefully, studies like the ones from Anderson’s lab will continue to illuminate the biological origins of psychiatric conditions, allowing us to treat patients without causing debilitating side effects. Science, technology, and society have advanced too far for us to continue to uphold faulty and harmful perspectives on psychiatric illnesses.
- Anderson, D. (2013, January). David Anderson: Your brain is more than a bag of chemicals [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/david_anderson_your_brain_is_more_than_a_bag_of_chemicals?language=en#t-474935