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Chemistry and the Mind


Probably the most frequently filmed of the literary horror classics, Robert Lewis Stevenson's 1886 novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the chemical transformation of the human personality. Most of us recall the famous scene in which the benevolent young doctor metamorphoses into the monstrous Mr. Hyde. Yet there is another transformation in both novel and films which we tend to overlook. The profligate Hyde, seeking refuge from his crimes by reverting to the shape of his better half, drinks another bubbling concoction and changes back into the mild mannered Jekyll. The former, more dramatic, transformation gets all the attention. Its relevance as a metaphor for the debilitating effects of alcoholism and drug addiction remains obvious. But the less stunning transformation in which monster turns back into man may prove, in the long run, to be more significant, for it embodies the germ of an idea which has produced a major revolution in psychiatry. The applications of chemistry in the field of psychiatric medications have been successful beyond all expectations, and have benefitted untold millions of people by enabling them to undergo the transition from Hyde to Jekyll in their own personal lives.

The knowledge that chemicals have the ability to alter thoughts, emotions and actions is certainly not new. Ancient cultures were thoroughly familiar with the effects of fermented beverages and other drugs. But the use of chemicals in the treatment of mental illness in other than sedative applications is a relatively recent development. Although it is true that lithium salts were marketed as tonics in the 19'th century, the systematic study of the psychiatric effects of lithium and other substances did not really get off the ground until the last 70 years.

Beginning in 1931, observations of the therapeutic effects of rauwolfia serpentina on psychotic patients led to serious research in the area of psychopharmacy. An important breakthrough occured in 1943 when Albert Hofmann, a chemist working for the Sandoz company, accidently ingested or absorbed a minute quantity of a new compound he was working with. This compound, d-lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD-25, produced distorted perceptions and hallucinations similar to those experienced by schizophrenics. This discovery intensified interest in the idea that mental illnesses had neurochemical causes, a notion that had been largely superceded by psychological and sociological etiologies. Slowly, more compounds were used in mental health settings, but it was only in 1972 that such research became well known to the public. At that time, a media furor erupted when Sen. Thomas Eagelton dropped out of the Vice Presidential candidacy after admitting that he suffered from depression. Eagleton excited public interest with reports of his successful treatment with lithium.

Further research throughout the seventies produced a host of new pharmaceutical products, but the real quantum leap occured in 1988 with the appearance of the first selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, Prozac, a medication that promised quick relief from depression without the side effects of conventional antidepressants. Prozac became an overnight pharmaceutical success, and turned into a major social phenomenon. Soon, other pharmaceutical companies were bringing out their own SSRI medications, such as Paxil and Zoloft, while research into drug therapies for other mental illnesses rapidly intensified. By the mid 90's, Depakote (valproic acid) largely replaced lithium in the treatment of bipolar disorders, and Clozaril became the most successful medication in the treatment of schizophrenia. Today, newer medications are giving the SSRIs stiff competition on the medications market. Remeron, an antidepressant with a tetracyclic structure unrelated to SSRIs, tricyclics, or MAO inhibitors, seems to be the most promising.

Although undoubtedly of great benefit, the use of medications in psychiatry is still disdained by some people. They distrust the inherent materialism in the notion that human thoughts, emotions, and actions can be explained by, and therefore reduced to, chemical processes in the brain. But chemistry itself shows the way out of this philosophical impasse with its dictum that nothing is ever lost during chemical changes. Every reduction implies an oxidation. If thoughts and emotions are reducible to chemical reactions, then it is also true that chemicals can think and feel! And this should be miraculous enough to satisfy the needs of even the most philosophically inclined individuals.

To learn more about specific psychiatric medications, click here. Information about various mental health issues is available on the Mental Health Internet. And if you want detailed data on psychiatric drug therapy, go here. In the future, I'll also have a page with FAQs about side effects and medication related problems.

Are You Afraid to Take Psychiatric Medications Even Though You Might Need Them?

This Might Change Your Mind.