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New ways of treating mental illness

Monday 18 February 2008

Technology and brain science opens the door to new ways of treating mental illness

A top visiting British Psychiatrist says that the treatment of mental illness is likely to rapidly progress in the next 15 to 20 years because of improved technology and knowledge of genetics . Professor David Nutt, University of Bristol, has recently collaborated in a report for the UK government exploring possible new treatments for mental illness over the next two decades.

“We haven’t made a lot of progress in recent years in the treatment of mental illness, but now we’re at the point of making significant gains,” he says. “I’m referring to two areas in particular: the use of the human genome and the use of more powerful medical imaging techniques that have the ability to probe further and further into the workings of that great uncharted frontier of the human body, the brain.”

Professor Nutt is a visiting lecturer at the University of Otago, Christchurch under the Margaret Black Fellowship and will be speaking about latest treatments for mental illness at the first free public lecture of the Health Lecture Series on Wednesday February 20.

He says the mapping of the human genome means that by 2025 it will be possible to genotype every single person at birth through a pin-prick of blood.

“We’ll be able to tell people exactly what genes they’ve got wrong with them, whether they’ve got genes that make them vulnerable to drug side-effects, or if they are vulnerable to certain disorders”

“That information could be encoded in a chip and put under the skin, if society wants this, so when they go to their doctor that can be scanned to see if a particular drug, such as an antidepressant, has a negative effect on the patient.”

Another area where there will be major changes will be the ability to look inside the brain through MRI imaging to determine those circuits involved in thinking, feeling and mental illness.

Professor Nutt says the fact that we will be able to examine mental illness through both the genome and brain imaging, offers ethical challenges but significant progress in treatments. We need neuro-science for these developments he says.

“However what we’re still struggling with is to answer why these things are happening, that is to understand the chemistry of neurotransmitters which control brain processes. This is one of the great challenges for medicine in the 21st century and we need international collaboration to crack the code, as the task is so daunting.”

Professor Nutt will also speak about the often intense debate between the efficacy of Psychotherapy versus brain science in mental illness. He says there is a place for Psychotherapy, or ‘talking therapy’, with certain disorders such as the treatment of anxiety and social phobias.

However he believes the significant developments in mental health will occur because of the combined use of information flowing from the human genome, and our technical ability to probe the workings of the brain with super powerful medical imaging such as MRI scans.

Professor Nutt will speak on the treatment of mental illness and its future at the Health Lecture Series, University of Otago, Christchurch School of Medicine, Wednesday February 20 at 7.30pm.


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