corruption

Neuroscience, Pseudoscience and The Vast Gulf Between

A guest blog and opinion piece at the top of the search pops on the subject of psychiatry at Scientific America is entitled Why Psychiatry Needs Neuroscience. The author is one Daniel Barron. The claim was made in this piece that there was a war between the two fields to which Neuroskeptic blogger at Discovery Magazine replied with a post of his own, The Fake “War Between Neuroscience and Psychiatry”.

Daniel Barron writes:

That the relevance of neuroscience to psychiatry is still questioned is blatantly outlandish: what organ do psychiatrists treat if not the brain? And what framework could possibly be more relevant than neuroscience to understanding brain dysfunction?

Hold on a minute, “what organ do psychiatrists treat if not the brain?” Uh, I’ve got another one for you, what organ do neurologists treat if not the brain?  I suggest we take it to Google and ask for a definition of psychiatry and  then a definition neurology. If we do so, we get this:

Psychiatry: the study and treatment of mental illness, emotional disturbance, and abnormal behavior.

Neurology: the branch of medicine or biology that deals with the anatomy, functions, and organic disorders of nerves and the nervous system.

It is not brains that psychiatrists study, in other words, it is misbehavior. Whether the misbehavior of people can be linked to misbehaving brains, and by extension, nervous systems (misfiring neurons) is another thing altogether.

Psychiatrists, in other words, deal with mental disorders while neurologists deal with brain injury and disease.  Prove you’ve got a bona fide disease affecting the brain, and, as happened with syphilis early in the twentieth century, it is no longer on the turf of psychiatrists, it is then in the territory of neurologists. This is a divide that can’t be breached by wishful thinking.

With the new emphasis on brain research, everything associated with neuro is trendy. Okay, today there are people calling themselves neuropsychiatrists, and that I would characterize as a mystification, pure and simple. Nobody, after all, who has not gotten into trouble with the long arm of the law, is likely to be called a “psycho-neurologist” anymore.

The question becomes, when it comes to behavior, over which people certainly have some measure of control, as conscious decision making must come into play somewhere along the line, should we be placing all the blame for aberrant behaviors on mechanical actions taking place inside the brain, or do they have more to do with other factors–schooling, parenting, etc.–involving a whole constellation of other things.

Again, back to the case of syphilis. Technically speaking, psychiatrists don’t study and treat the brain. Alzheimer’s disease is brain disease. Neurologists handle that. ADHD, distraction among students, is accounted a mental disorder, a matter for psychiatry.  When it comes down to it, we are no closer to reliably attributing distraction in students to dysfunctional brains than we are to attributing it to dull and uninteresting subjects of study.

Although war is an awful strong word to use, I imagine there is plenty of room for disagreement between these two, seemingly similar, disciplines. The present detente worries me much more than any conflict that might arise between them would. I can’t help but imagine bribery, backhanded deals, and suppression of information keeping those lips that should be speaking sealed in the interim..

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