If you are not sick and tired of the question, “Is MADNESS a neurological disease of the brain or is it a mythological disease of the mind?” you should be! I defy you to have a thought without your body or to work your body without a brain. There is no mind/body split. And the countless scholarly papers regaling us with the proofs of how schizophrenia is a disease of the brain and not the mind or that schizophrenia is a disorder of the mind and not the body (remember, the brain is part of the body), well, to my mind they are all for naught.
Some historical perspective: There is a 1924 paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry, authored by the then prominent pathologist, Charles B. Dunlap, M.D., entitled, “Dementia Praecox. Some Preliminary Observations from Carefully Selected Cases, and a Consideration of Certain Sources of Error”. I reviewed this paper because one of my favorite mentors, Harry Stack Sullivan, who died in 1949 when I was 6 years old, referred to it when making the case that schizophrenia is NOT a brain disease.
Read the very first sentence of the paper: “Too many changes have been described in [autopsy] brains of dementia praecox even to be enumerated in this paper” (p. 403). He continues on page 404: “We have considered control brain [autopsy] material, collected from so-called normal persons [italics mine] without psychoses to be absolutely necessary…. No one knows the limitations of what is normal in the brain anyway…. Nissl [a prominent pathologist] who all his life was searching for a normal brain, died without finding one…”!!
Suffice it to say that Dr. Dunlap was not able to find any consistent gross or microscopic (cell counts & cellular pathology - pain staking work) abnormalities in these schizophrenic brains to warrant "an organic [my italics] basis for dementia praecox.” Thus, H.S. Sullivan was satisfied he was not dealing with neurological issues in his schizophrenic patients.
What interested me even more, though, was what was said in the discussion of the paper by other prominent physicians including Dr. William Alanson White, a pioneer of 20th century psychiatry and the director of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (where I currently supervise residents). By the way, White was also a mentor to H.S. Sullivan.
Anyway, White points out that there was so much wrong with these patients whose brains Dunlap studied, that “… a pathological explanation of the mental disease [need not] be found in the [cerebral] cortex.” There were “defects of organs, thyroid, gonads, and adrenals and the circulatory system…that we would not expect the individual to be able to function efficiently, at least under stress.” Don’t you love that phrase “function efficiently”? In other words Dr White is beginning to suggest what I am more emphatically proclaiming, that schizophrenia, madness, is a “disease” of the PERSON, not the brain and not the mind.
Fast forward 78 years and E. Fuller Torrey in his “Studies of Individuals with Schizophrenia Never Treated with Antipsychotic Medication: A Review”, in Schizophrenia Research, Vol 58, pp. 101-115. Torrey wants to take on Breggin’s and Whitaker’s and others’ arguments that the brain pathology in people diagnosed with schizophrenia is all iatrogenic. He concludes: “…schizophrenia is a brain disease in the same sense that Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis are….”
But wait, two other observations in his paper: “…psychiatrically normal individuals also [may] have structural changes in their brains” (p. 102) and on page 111, “It should be emphasized, however, that there is no single abnormality in brain structure or function that is pathognomonic for schizophrenia.” Torrey is an honorable man, I think. But he too is stuck in an either/or world of mind or body. None of the papers he reviews take up the challenge of examining the whole person, physiologically, psychologically, spiritually, and sociologically.
I say let’s be forgiving though, for indeed that is no simple task. We human creatures are so complex as are our ape relatives and other mammalian creatures. It is the role of the psychiatrist, ideally, to take on this task with each individual he treats. Few of us do that, I fear. The system is just not cut out that way yet. If we are to “save psychiatry” there has to be a change in medicine as a whole not just psychiatry. You might want to read Jim Gordon’s A Manifesto For A New Medicine. He takes on this dilemma. More to come.