Whitaker reviews the scientific research to demonstrate that the psychiatric drugs were discovered by accident, and were not intentionally developed to treat mental diseases. The theory of a chemically imbalanced brain was put forward after these drugs began to be prescribed and, according to Whitaker, this theory has not been supported by studies. As he noted, researchers did not find chemical imbalances in the brains of mental patients, but these imbalances did turn up after use of psychiatric drugs.
As brain studies advanced, researchers could finally explain why the drugs made patients more vulnerable to psychosis in the long run. They could also explain why the drug-induced changes to brain chemistry made it so risky for people to go off their meds. Doctors had looked at relapses as proof that the medications were fixing a problem. In fact, what these relapses were demonstrating was the damage done to the brain by the drug use.
A high percentage of long-term antipsychotics users develop a condition called tardive dyskinesia (way scary... look it up), proof that the drugs are inducing brain dysfunction. After the MRI was invented, researchers could prove that antipsychotics caused morphological changes in the brain, worsening symptoms and resulting in cognitive impairment.
Finally, evidence that long-term recovery rates for schizophrenia are higher for non-medicated patients turns up study after study. Only five percent of schizophrenia patients on long-term meds end up recovered. This is compared with rates of 65 percent and higher for non-medicated patients treated with progressive forms of psychosocial care.
The largest class-action suit against drug manufacturers (14,000 patients and 1800 law firms) was filed in the UK, claiming that patients were not warned about dependence or withdrawal when the drugs were prescribed. In 1979, the US Senate held hearings that prompted Edward Kennedy to note that these drugs had produced a “nightmare of dependence and addiction, both very difficult to treat and recover from.” The drugs were reclassified, causing a temporary drop in their use, but in 1981 Xanax went on the market, and the “benzos” continued to be the leading treatment for anxiety disorders. In 2010, formerly classified documents from a Medical Research Council (UK) meeting of experts emerged and revealed that the MRC was aware of research 30 years ago which suggested benzodiazepines could cause brain damage in some people similar to that which occurs from alcohol abuse, and they failed to follow-up with larger clinical trials.
The benzos are effective in short-term numbing of anxiety, but clinical trials show that this efficacy fades after about six weeks. What happens in the brain is that the benzos impair the brain’s ability to properly inhibit neuronal activity. As Whitaker notes, the benzos amplify the chemical in the brain that is the “brake fluid” that slows down activity. In response to the drug, the brain produces less “brake fluid” and decreases the density of the receptors for this chemical… which means that, over time "the brake fluid is low and the brake pads worn thin." If the patient attempts to go off the meds, the neurons begin to fire at a helter-skelter pace, and the patient’s anxiety goes through the roof.
And then there is the cognitive impairment: people having trouble focusing, remembering things, learning new material, solving problems. Interestingly, patients were often not aware of their reduced ability, which was evidence that their self-insight was also impaired. The benzos have proven to be a route to disability.
Summing up… in spite of the fact that government panels in both the US and the UK concluded thirty years ago, that the benzos should not be prescribed long-term, the prescribing goes on.
In the next blog, we’ll look at what Whitaker has to say about anti-depressants and bi-polar diagnoses…
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