When I was going through medical school it was a really exciting time in psychiatry.
Just as I began in medical school the new generation of anti-depressants arrived. Most famous of all was Prozac, which is still one of the most prescribed anti-depressants in the world.
Then the 1990s was called by US Presidential decree the “Decade Of The Brain”.
All very exciting.
Among the new scanning technologies, research findings, and biochemical breakthroughs there was one key outcome of this period that has forever changed psychiatry and neurobiology.
In the last years of the Decade of the Brain, it was discovered that human beings do in fact grow new brain cells. One key paper came out as late as October 1999.
This may not seem such a novel idea.
We are used to the rest of our body growing and adding new cells, but the brain was meant to be different.
The belief in medicine was that at a very young age you had produced all the brain cells you would ever have.
After that point you would slowly lose brain cells until you ran out. It was all downhill from there, so you best take good care of them and not kill them off with alcoho, drugs, or various forms of contact sport.
Somehow the brain was meant to be similar to teeth, or like female eggs cell in human ovaries where you start with a set number and they run down until menopause when they’re all gone.
Why the brain was more like ovaries and eggs, than like testicles and sperm, I never did work out.
But this turned out to be wrong.
All through the human brain we have nerve cells dividing and creating more neurons.
This new finding added enthusiasm for the idea that you could regrow nerve cells after strokes and spinal cord injuries.
This idea was most publicly promoted by ex-Superman actor, Christopher Reeve.
In practice regrowing nerve cells hasn’t turned out to be as simple as it sounds.
However in my work in counseling, this one breakthrough opened up a huge new vista of hope.
Suddenly all the permanency of the brain and it’s behaviors became up for grabs again. You didn’t just have to tell people about “growing new connections” which was already known to be true, but in fact there was no built-in decay process either. The brain could add more cells and by implication could change more radically than previously thought.
There was one additional message which was important for me and my work – important in fact for the thinking behind this blog too.
I don’t use it in counseling with patients, but I do use it as a fundamental piece of how I think about everything I do as a helping practitioner.
Here is the message:
- The medicine I was trained in got it wrong!
Not just slightly wrong either. Totally, horribly, 180 degrees wrong.
They asserted an idea that the brain could not create new nerve cells because they couldn’t detect it. They took this lack of evidence and claimed it to be a truth.
What other basic assumptions is medicine wrong about even today?
Lots. You can be certain of that.
-Dr Martin Russell