Why mental health may not be all in your head

THE coronavirus aside, when you are laid low with a common cold, a sense of hopelessness can set in if the wretched thing drags on for a few days.
You know the feeling. It is hard to remember what feeling good felt like or how you could ever full of the joys of spring again.
In short, for a few days, you probably felt a lot like someone with depression. And, increasingly, scientists believe it no coincidence that a mental illness feels like a physical one.
A growing body of research on conditions from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to depression is starting to suggest a closer link than was previously thought between setbacks of the mind and of the body. Activation of the immune system seems to play a crucial role in both.
An immune response, including inflammation, new research suggests, may help explain why:

  • Brain conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease all affect mood;
  • About one in four people hospitalised with schizophrenia had a urinary tract infection when admitted to the hospital;
  • Mothers with auto-immune conditions such as lupus are more likely to have a child on the autism spectrum;
  • People with higher rates of inflammation are more likely to show signs of depression than those with healthy immune function.

According to a report on BigThink.com, a study in mice presented earlier this month at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual convention showed that the immune changes came before the emotional ones.
“One of the things we need to stop thinking is that mental health is just a disorder of the brain,” says researcher Georgia Hodes, of the Icahn Medical Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital, who conducted the mouse study. “There’s plenty of evidence in a number of different mental illnesses that they have components to them that relate to the entire body,” she told BigThink.com
And this mind-immune system connection might help explain why mental health treatments don’t work for some people. Perhaps, researchers now think, those people would be better off with approaches that target their immune systems rather than their brain chemicals.
For those with schizophrenia and urinary tract infections, for instance, acute psychotic symptoms often improve after a few days on antibiotics, according to Brian Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgia Regents University in Augusta, who is studying the connection between the conditions. This isn’t to suggest that all people with schizophrenia should be on antibiotics, Miller says, but patients with both might get as much or more relief from antibiotics as antipsychotics.
The immune system’s role might also fit into the “second-hit” idea of mental illness, where two or more factors, such as genetics, immune challenges and, say, a hit to the head, combine to cause brain problems. That may explain why traumatic brain injuries often lead to depression.
What is clear, the report says, is that the body and mind both influence one another.

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