Microscopy & Microtechniques

Can Neuroscience Tackle Mental Illness?

Dec 17 2016 Read 2853 Times

Mental illness is one of the most common, and dangerous diseases on the planet. Cognitive scientists are continually looking at ways to treat disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, substance abuse and depression, and now a WHO health official is coveting neuroscience as the answer.  

While first world nations are generally advanced and forward thinking when it comes to public health care, some experts maintain that there’s a gaping void between resources devoted to traditional diseases, and resources devoted to mental health disorders.

“When it comes to mental health, all countries are developing countries,” comments Shekhar Saxena, director of the World Health Organisation’s department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

He maintains that in order to bridge the gap, collaboration between mental health researchers and neuroscientists is fundamental.  

WHO rallies for interdisciplinary collaboration

His collaborative ideas are based on a new understanding of dendrites, the branches that extend from a nerve cell. Each is equipped with tiny protrusions called spines, which act as receivers for messages from other neurons. Saxena claims that malfunctioning proteins in the spines could intensify signals sent to the ventral tegmental area. In turn, this may send signals that increase the production of dopamine in the striatum region of the brain, which is a textbook cause of mental disorders like schizophrenia.

At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience he called for interdisciplinary collaboration between mental health researchers and neuroscientists, asserting that an alliance could represent exciting new opportunities for progress.

“The collaboration seems to be improving, but much more is needed and not only in a few countries, but all countries,” he stressed.

Saving cash, and lives

The benefits of collaboration would be enormous, with Saxena highlighting the fact that worldwide, the annual cost of mental disorders tops a huge $2.5 trillion. By 2030, this figure is expected to hit $6 trillion. He describes mental illness as a “hidden epidemic,” with global suicides taking more than 800,000 lives every year.

Not only did Saxena rally for a collaborative approach to fighting mental disorders, but he also stressed that cognitive scientists need to adopt a broader scope when it comes to research. Currently, over 90% of scientific studies on mental illness take place in high-income countries. He called on the neuroscience community to step up to the “grand challenge” and pioneer for a collaborative approach to mental health research, across the globe.

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