A pitch for infections as a major cause of mental illness, arguing for a paradigm shift from mainstream psychiatric doctrine.
Journalist Washington (Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, 2011, etc.) champions the work of E. Fuller Torrey and colleagues. As a young man, Torrey was appalled when his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia attributed to “family problems.” It was a time when “schizophrenogenic mothers” were all the fashion. Torrey became a psychiatrist and started his infection-oriented research. It’s unquestionable that some severe mental illness is rooted in infections—e.g., syphilis, rabies, Sydenham’s chorea, the World War I flu that led to encephalitis lethargica, and, more recently, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, and mad cow disease. However, Torrey and his colleagues see infectious causality in a much wider variety of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, bipolar disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, autism, and anorexia. The evidence is scant, largely based on association studies such as finding evidence of infections in blood or spinal fluid or a seasonal increase in some disorders that could be a sign of a viral infection. Furthermore, conjecture abounds. Do children really pick up the parasite Toxoplasma gondii from cat urine in park sandboxes and later develop schizophrenia? For all that infections are touted, researchers cite genetics, stress, and trauma as making a difference in whether disease will manifest. A better case is made regarding strep throat, after which a few children develop OCD seemingly overnight. In a small study, their symptoms were reversed when their blood was filtered to remove strep antibodies. In making the infectious pitch, Washington rightly argues that it strengthens the case for abandoning the Cartesian dualism that separates mind from body and leads to stigma and fear. It’s acceptable to study how infection and immunity affect the brain, but only as part of a larger agenda to understand the brain in all its plasticity and complexity.
Conclusion: an unproven but undoubtedly provocative case. Expect dissent and discussion.