In D.C., Brain Science Meets Behavioral Science To Shed Light On Mental Disorders : NPR

The Society for Neuroscience meeting is taking place in Washington, D.C., this weekend. Researchers there are focusing on how to find the biological underpinnings of mental disorders.


More than 30,000 brain scientists are in Washington, D.C., this week attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting. One of the hot topics this year is mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia and autism. NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton has just come from the meeting to talk about some of what he’s been seeing and hearing. Hi, John. Thanks for coming.


MARTIN: So how does this work contribute to understanding mental disorders in people?

HAMILTON: Twenty years ago, I’d say it didn’t contribute much, but things are really changing. And I was really surprised. I was going through the abstracts to this year’s meeting, and there were nearly a thousand papers that mentioned depression. There were 500 that mentioned schizophrenia or autism. And just this morning, there was this study on how – looking at the brain tissue of people with obsessive compulsive disorder and how it’s different.

So the fields of brain science and mental health are converging. And I think the reason is that brain scientists are finally beginning to figure out how the biology works, the biology that underlies mental health problems. So I was talking to a scientist at the meeting. His name is Robbie Greene. He’s a psychiatrist, but he’s also a lab scientist at UT Southwestern in Dallas. And he was telling me that neuroscience is now at a point where it can help psychiatrists and psychologists understand all of those things that are happening in the brain that we’re not conscious of. Here’s what he told me.

ROBBIE GREEN: Now we’re starting to actually understand this unconscious activity in terms of how the neurons are working, firing, talking to each other in ways that produce the behavior, the feelings, things like that that we actually see.

MARTIN: So has something changed to let scientists understand so much more about what’s going on in the brain?

HAMILTON: A lot of things that changed, but one of the big things is the ability to reproduce aspects of human mental disorders in animals. And you do this using genetic engineering. So, for example, there’s a technique called optogenetics. And what it lets scientists do is use light to switch on and off specific circuits in the…

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