Psychiatry affects human psychology: e.g., ‘bipolar’ children

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Prof. Joseph Biederman, MD

Although I really enjoy psychology, like many anthropologists, I feel a deep ambivalence about some contemporary psychological theory and research.

Some of these problems are trivial and tendentious, to be honest, more the effects of pushing our own disciplinary preferences in the way research is presented or semiotic hair-splitting in theoretical terms than substantive concerns. But there are some more profound issues, touched on in recent posts like Daniel’s Neurotosh, Neurodosh and Neurodash and my post, Bench and couch: genetics and psychiatry. Ironically, I was reminded of one of the more serious issues while reading a piece a few weeks ago by psychologist and psychologist-sceptic Bruce Levine on Alternet, The Science of Happiness: Is It All Bullshit?

In a meandering way, this post is a reflection on one of anthropology’s consistent criticisms of psychology; the often unacknowledged role of psychiatry in shaping psyches. That is, the difficulty of studying a phenomenon when one is helping to create it and one’s theories influence your subjects’ accounts. When psychology is successful in breaking through into popular awareness, it becomes entangled with its subject, a kind of folk theory operating in the same space that psychologists seek to study. So this post is a kind of neuroanthropological reflection on clinical psychology as both research enterprise and world-making project, and the way the two come into conflict.

Specifically, Daniel’s post on Neurotosh and Levine’s story of John Stewart confronting Harvard happiness researcher, Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, reminded me of the recent scandal surrounding psychiatrist Prof. Joseph Biederman. Biederman took large unreported consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies who manufactured anti-psychotic medicines while he was simultaneously encouraging psychiatrists to diagnose children with bipolar disorder, and then to prescribe their young patients anti-psychotic medicines. Senator Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) held hearings on the financial conflicts of interest as reported in The New York Times in Researchers Fail to Reveal Full Drug Pay, by Gardiner Harris and Benedict Carey. (For an earlier critical article, see the Boston Globe piece, Backlash on bipolar diagnoses in children.)

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Bench and couch: genetics and psychiatry

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a nice piece on recent research, reported in Nature, on psychiatric genetics: Mental illness: in with the intron crowd. The original article, Psychiatric genetics: The brains of the family, appeared in Nature on 10 July (but it’s behind a subscription wall if you want to see the original — sorry). Daniel linked to Vaughn’s article in the last Wednesday Round Up (#20), but I wanted to make a further brief comment. Vaughn does a really nice job of laying out the key issues, so I’d recommend jumping over there if this brief discussion whets your appetite.

The problem for neuropsychiatry is that genetic links to psychiatric disorders are proving difficult to clearly define. Abbott explains the situation really well:

Finding genes involved in psychiatric conditions is proving to be particularly intractable because it is still unclear whether the various diagnoses are actually separate diseases with distinct underlying genetics or whether… they will dissolve under the genetic spotlight into one biological continuum. Indeed, some researchers suggest that it would be better to abandon conventional clinical definitions and focus instead on ‘intermediate phenotypes’, quantifiable characteristics such as brain structure, wiring and function that are midway between the risk genes involved and the psychopathology displayed.

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