The previous blog explored the accidental nature of the discoveries of these so-called magic bullets, and this blog will examine how the tail of those discoveries came to wag the dog of scientific theory.
Whitaker notes how psychiatry was viewed very differently from other branches of medicine. Traditionally, the patient would lie on a couch as the psychiatrist led them back through the labyrinthine convolutions of their childhood or provided interpretations for their dreams. This was a far cry from the medical practitioner who diagnosed specific illnesses and prescribed scientifically formulated medicines to correct the condition. With the discovery of “magic bullet” antibiotics, the prestige of doctors rose considerably, and psychiatrists were eager to see their practice achieve the same degree of validation and popularity. If only there was some way to frame these accidentally-discovered drugs as disease-fighting agents!
A beautiful theory, easily understood by patients.
The hunt for chemical imbalances in the brain was as unsuccessful as the US hunt for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Equally unfortunately, the failure of the hunt for these imbalances was as irrelevant to public policy as was the failure to locate the weapons of mass destruction. When the public is clamoring for action, and when there is a theory so perfectly tailored to justify said action… well, researchers can either get on the bandwagon or risk the stigma and obscurity reserved for party-poopers and whistleblowers.
The twin pillars of the Chemically Imbalance Theory were 1) the low serotonin hypothesis of depression and 2) the high-dopamine hypothesis of schizophrenia. By the late 1980’s, research had shown both theories to be wanting. Whitaker cites hundreds of studies, and my blog in no way does justice to the thoroughness of his research into the testing done on these drugs. As a former founder of a publishing company that reported on clinical testing of new drugs, the author brings a level of professional expertise to his knowledge of the field and analysis of findings.
So… the researchers did not find the Chemically Imbalanced Brain that would be healed by the administration of drugs that had been originally developed for other purposes. But, in studying the psychiatric patients taking these drugs, they did discover something else. In the words of Whitaker:
"Prior to treatment, patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, and other psychiatric disorders do not suffer from any known 'chemical imbalance.' However, once a person is put on psychiatric medication, which, in one manner or another, throws a wrench into the usual mechanics of a neuronal pathway, his or her brain begins to function… abnormally.”
The chemical imbalance was turning up after administration of the drugs, and often it appeared to be permanent. Which raises the question: After fifty years of prescribing these drugs, what exactly have been the outcomes?
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Click here to go to Part 5