On John Nash and his Schizophrenia- published in Deccan Chronicle
The famous mathematician John Nash is a prime example, the film, A Beautiful Mind, bringing to engaging life the tumults that affect a person with schizophrenia. For the mind is a construct, not a physical entity. Modern medicine sees the mind as software and the brain as hardware. Millions of neurons, linked by chemicals (neurotransmitters) that establish pathways and communicate through them, form it. But when there is major mental illness, such as schizophrenia, this neurochemical system breaks down and there follows a disintegration of thought processes and reasoning.
What lies beneath?
The person so afflicted suffers from a degeneration of the neurotransmitter systems, of dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine in particular, which serve like chemical messengers of the brain. They are molecular substances that can affect mood, appetite, anxiety, sleep and other parameters. Schizophrenia causes atrophy of critical brain structures, such as the hippocampus, which is the storehouse of memory and a device for comparing emotion. The person is likely to have grown up in an environment that offered limited opportunities for emotional expression or development. He or she also has an inherent over-sensitivity, a tendency to misperceive environmental events and is likely to over-react. It is important though, from a social perspective, for them to be educated, employed and to marry.
Mood swings, happiness or sadness that is out of proportion to the circumstances; hallucinations, seeing or hearing things; beliefs that have no basis in reality or delusions, making assumptions where none are warranted; emotional dyscontrol (anger, laughter, crying, inappropriately); sleep and appetite disturbances; lifestyle issues — these are some of the common symptoms. More severely affected people show a disintegration of language and communication, with stilted speech, odd behaviours and inappropriate gesturing.
The advent of chlorpromazine in the middle of the last century signalled the advent of a biological ‘mind cure’, and ever since, many psychotropic drugs have emerged that can help restore normal mental functioning and been found to be quite safe and effective. However, drugs are not without side effects and are by no means universally effective, a proportion of people failing to respond to various permutations and combinations. Further, while drugs control symptoms — even banish them — they do not restore normal functioning or the quality of life on their own. The affected person needs to relearn lost emotional, social and pragmatic skills, regain confidence to engage in social intercourse, learn once again to pay attention, concentrate and commit to memory; indeed function as an integrated whole, in family, at work and in society.
A comprehensive programme of psychological therapy for the person and the family is therefore essential. Occupational therapy to regain lost skills and focus; physical therapy, including exercise, to manage attendant physical symptoms and regain bodily fitness; yoga and meditation to manage anxiety, restore calm and enhance well being, are all helpful.
Largely untapped also, are the secrets ancient medical traditions hold, with potential to enhance physical and mental well being, Shirodhara in Ayurveda and Hydrotherapy from naturopathy, being classic examples.
Reintegrating the mind is thus a task for a multidisciplinary team, guided by a qualified mental health professional, and such an approach, with well defined goals, can go a long way in helping the patient.