Review: Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness by Anne Harrington

In spite of the many patients who have been helped to lead emotionally stable, more productive lives thanks to two generations of psychopharmacological medicines, psychiatry is facing an ongoing challenge of its foundation and legitimacy. That is the take-away in Anne Harrington’s Mind Fixers: Psychiatry’s Troubled Search for the Biology of Mental Illness(W.W. Norton, 2019, 366 pp., $27.95).

 So what is the “trouble” of the “troubled search”? Thereby hangs the tale. The optimistic biological psychiatry paradigm of the 1980s and 1990s is beginning to unravel in the new millennium. Harrington’s is an equal opportunity debunking.

 All the new drugs that eventually displaced the Freudians, whose pride in the 1950s through 1980s preceded their fall, were developed during that period of time. “All

The first antidepressant: Tuberculosis Patients dancing after being given iproniazid for their TB - turns out to have antidepressant properties

The first antidepressant: Tuberculosis Patients dancing after being given iproniazid for their TB – turns out to have antidepressant properties

the major categories of drugs still used today in psychiatry were discovered then [….] no minds were changed that did not want to be changed” (p. xvi).

 Meanwhile, in 2013 some thirty years after the biological psychiatrists declared victory, Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), reported with concern that all of psychiatry’s diagnostic categories were still based, not on biological markers of disease, but “on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms.” This was, according to Insel, “equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever” (p. xv).

 With a characteristic dry wit, Insel concludes that biology never read the DSM. If this was supposed to be the biological underpinning of psychiatry, the firm foundation was more shifting sand than any might wish.

 The really troubling thing that I learned from Harrington is not that drug companies have become less an “engine of innovation” than a “vast marketing machine.” That is already widely appreciated by anyone who has not been living in a cave – including most psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and front line medical doctors.

 Harrington’s reasoned, documented, and compelling narrative contains the ultimate smack down: “many psychiatrists, having tethered so much of their identity to drugs and prescribing rights, sold their services to the drug companies” (p. xviii). This remains the blind spot of the profession, even among those who acknowledge the dilemma. If you make a deal with the devil, be sure to read the find print.

 The blind spot becomes a black hole as the gravitational pull, in this case of revenue, prevents practitioners from escaping, even though they really want to talk with their patients at the length needed to figure out what is actually troubling them.

 The breaking news? What is less well known is that Big Parma is now nearly flat out stopped in its quest. The quest to find the biological foundations of mental illness is on a slope of diminishing return; and Big Pharma seems to be abandoning the search. This does not mean that there will not be copycat drugs of medicines coming off patent or new variations on old themes. To my mind, this development needs to be better known and debated.  

 Another former NIMH director, Steven Hyman, comments on the abandonment of the field by the pharmaceutical industry: “the underlying science remains immature and . . . therapeutic development in psychiatry is simply too difficult and too risky” (p. xv). 

 In a separate email communication with Harrington, Hyman writes: “When [pharmaceutical] companies were told they had to compare new drugs not only to placebo but to an existing drug known to be efficacious, or have a predictive biomarker to gain approval in Europe – their response was ‘we don’t know how to do that.’ . . .  In essence the EMA [European Medicines Agency] called their bluff” (p. 266).

Full disclosure: in my own training as part of the Committee on Research and Special Topics (CORST) at Rush Medical University in the 2010-2012 time frame, all my teachers, the psychiatrists, without exception made us memorize the generic name for the medications so as not unwittingly to give publicity to the brand name of the drug companies.

While acknowledging that the medicines often helped, they sensed something was off the rails. They expressed their disdain for the monopoly rents of Big Pharma (though not using these exact words). Yet, for so many reasons, they continued to turn the crank as rapidly as possible in prescribing the pharmacological interventions that were the prevailing paradigm. No alternative paradigm was visible.

 How could this happen? The irony is that, at a high level, the biological psychiatrists made the same mistake as the Freudians. It is a “pride that goeth before the fall” moment, and notwithstanding selected voices of moderation, both sides came to embrace a position that no one else but us (really) knows anything about anything.

 Harrington’s ultimate analysis of the unraveling of the optimistic biological psychiatry of the 1980s: “I argue that this happened, not just become the gap between hype and the state of scientific understanding was too great to bridge (though it was), but also because of a critical error that the original revolutionaries had made. Instead of reflecting on the extent to which the Freudians had lost credibility by insisting that they could be experts on everything, the new generation of biological revolutionaries repeated their mistake: they declared themselves thenewexperts on everything. No one suggested that it might be prudent to decide which forms of mental suffering were best served by a medical model, and which might be better served in some other way. Revolutionaries don’t cede ground” (p. xvii).

 Harrington’s narrative is a page turner, even for those who already know the details and the usual suspects, extending from Charcot’s ground breaking work and monumental self-deception, Emil Kraeplin’s distinction between thought disorder and mood disorder, Karl Jasper’s “brain mythology,” the psychoanalysts domination of psychiatry, through the fever cure of Julius Wagner-Jauregg, John Cade’s lithium salt discoveries, the dancing tuberculosis patients responding to iproniazid (complete with a photo from Life Magazine, 1952), the human rights violations, “operation icepick” of Walter Freeman (and James Watts), Ugo Cerletti’s electroshock machine, the breakthrough to the chemical lobotomy of chlorpromazine, the emptying of the asylums, the broken promises, the litigation faced by Chestnut Lodge, the appalling case of Rose Kennedy, listening to Prozac, anti-psychiatry, the accidental judgments, the good intentions gone bad, and, in the upshot, purposes mistook and fallen on the inventors’ head. All this does Harrington truly deliver.

 The narrative left me wondering whether we are not living through another period of brain mythology. Granted the account of neurotransmitters, of serotonin and/or dopamine imbalance, can be traced down to neural synapses, science is at the effect of a massive correlation versus causation fallacy. The voodoo correlations in fMRI research support the colonization of vast areas of the social sciences and humanities by neurophilosophy, neuromarketing, neurolaw, neurohistory, neuroaesthetics, and so on. But enough of my cynicism and resignation.

 What are the possibilities going forward? Is a new paradigm coming into view? Though Harrington’s recommendations are combined in a section on Afterthoughts that left me wishing for more, what she does offer are powerful and on target. Still, after having spent so much time and effort telling the tortured tale of psychiatry’s rise and looming fall, will the profession be willing to listen to her call for “an act of great professional and ethical courage” (p. 273)?

 Her recommendation is to cut scope. Given the lack of underlying science, this also implies expanded modesty about psychiatry’s entitlement to power, authority, and market boundaries. Positively expressed, renew the commitment to engaging with the most severe forms of mental illness and leave the routine care of the “worried well” and support for the mentally ill to other professionals. “

 Harrington: “The new psychiatry I am envisioning could also aim to overcome its persistent reductionist habits and commit to an ongoing dialogue with the scholarly world of the social sciences and even the humanities [….] [E]ven as it [psychiatry] retains its focus on biological processes and disease, it seeks to understand ways that human being functioning, disordered or not, is sensitive to culture and context (as the recent crisis over the placebo effect in psychopharmacology […] has likely shown)” (pp. 275 – 276).

 Harrington calls for interdisciplinary collaboration on a “pluralistic, powering-sharing approach” (p. 274). Make it a priority to overcome the position that “the knowledge and practices of all the nonmedically trained workers are by definition subordinate to those of the medically trained ones” (p. 274). This would help to close the credibility gap suffered by the psychiatric establishment as a result of the shameful ways of deinstitutionalization in the 1960s and ‘70s led to homelessness, incarceration, and premature death (pp. 274 – 275).

 I can hear psychiatrists saying, off camera, we too were blindsided, we too did not know. That may indeed be the case, but professional psychiatry has been left holding the smoking chlorpromazine gun. A major tranquilizer and a highly useful one; but nothing like insulin that a diabetic would contemplate taking for lifetime due to a specific disease that leaves the patient deficient in insulin. Begin the process of rehabilitation by acknowledging the solid social science research that shows many people with serious mental disorders benefit far more from being given their own apartment and access to support communities than a script for new or stronger antipsychotic (p. 275).

 Harrington makes a powerful case that general practitioners and psychiatrists are perpetuating a fiction that the drugs they are prescribing are correcting biochemical deficiencies caused by disease, much as (say) a prescription of insulin corrects a biochemical deficiency caused by diabetes (p. 273). Such rhetoric is badly oversold. Harrington does not say that the medicines do not help the person tolerate distress, regulate emotions, or self-sooth. Often they do. If one is going to step in front of a bus, far better to take the medicine. Live to fight another day.

 Given the complexity of the scientific challenges, psychiatry need not feel embarrassed. However, neither should it be zealously promoting imminent breakthroughs and revolutions as if it were an adjunct to the popular press or a corporate press release.  

Harrington makes the case that the underlying science is not anywhere near the level the neurohype would have us believe. “You have a chemical imbalance” is a marketing position, not a scientifically established truth. “Schizophrenia is like diabetes and you have to take this antipsychotic drug for the rest of your life” is a rhetorical position, not a scientific fact. This is scientism, not science. This is psychiatry’s troubled search for the biological basis of mental illness.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project





Categories: anxiety disorders, autism, Big Pharma, brain science, fMRI, Freud, narrative, Neurology

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