Scientists have long searched for cures to diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s and other ailments. But recently medical science has turned its attention to the links between physical and mental health — often with amazing results. As such, some of the medical field’s most significant recent discoveries have occurred in the area of mental health. These discoveries shed new light on how brain-based disorders form and how to treat them. This ongoing research is also providing medical professionals with more effective treatment options for mental health patients.
Understanding What Mental Health Is
Princeton University’s online dictionary defines “mental health” as: “The psychological state of someone who is functioning at a satisfactory level of emotional and behavioral adjustment.” For scientific purposes, mental health research seeks to identify states of emotional dysregulation, pinpoint causes and develop effective treatments. Many different professionals collaborate in identifying, tracking and treating mental illness. For students pursuing their mental health counseling masters degree, biology, neuropsychology, public health or related advanced degree, they are entering the field at perhaps the most exciting and enlightened time in the history of modern medicine.
How Sleep Patterns and Schizophrenia Are Related
Scientific researchers have now identified what appears to be a clear link between sleep patterns and schizophrenia. Specifically, individuals who have schizophrenic episodes have more extreme sleep disturbances — including sometimes a total reversal of body clock — than their unaffected peers. This sheds new light on the link between improving sleep quality and maintaining a healthy mental state.
Using the Epigenome to Heal Brain Disorders
According to the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), “epigenome” is a term for the combination of chemicals that translates each individual’s genetic blueprint (genome) into action. For instance, if the genome is a result of nature (the combination of the parents’ DNA), the epigenome can be shaped by nurture (the individual’s environment and experiences). With this newfound understanding, scientists have discovered that studying the human epigenome provides clues in explaining how early life events (such as stress or illness) can contribute to later brain disorders.
The Healing “Placebo Effect”
Can a mother’s kiss really make a bump or bruise feel better? That is the premise scientists have been exploring in their work to understand the “placebo effect.” In a variety of research studies, scientists have experimented with using placebo (non-active agent) pills in place of potent painkillers. While the most startling results have come from Parkinson’s patients and severe pain patients, doctors and researchers now see evidence of the placebo effect at work in cases ranging from stress reduction to high blood pressure.
Neuroplasticity: The New Hope for Brain Healing
“Neuroplasticity” refers to the brain’s ability to continue to adapt, adjust, rewire and even create new neural connections all throughout life. Formerly considered a privilege of the very young, today scientists know the brain retains its neuroplasticity properties through a person’s entire life. This understanding is changing how medicine treats brain injury. For instance, when brain function is lost in one area (such as after a stroke) we now know that the brain can transfer lost functions to other areas. How this may affect treatment for neurological disorders, accident victims and others is not yet known — but the field looks promising.
Autistic Teen’s Journal Changes the Face of Science
In 2008 Carly Fleischmann, a teen with severe autism, stunned autism researchers, her family and the world when she learned to use a computer as her “voice.” All of a sudden, this 13-year-old girl — who never learned to speak — began to type out her thoughts. While in the past autistic children were often labeled as “retarded” or “low-functioning,” Fleishmann’s on-screen journal changed decades of misunderstanding literally overnight. Today, she serves as an ambassador for other autistic children, teens and adults who have struggled to find their voices.
These amazing mental health breakthroughs represent only a handful of the findings that dedicated, talented researchers have discovered to improve the lives of those struggling with mental health issues.
About the Author: Sean Caro holds a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a minor in biology. When he graduates, he plans to work at a research lab investigating cures for Alzheimer’s — a disease that runs in his family.