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How Biology Is Providing the Clues to Unlock the Secrets of Normal and Abnormal Behavior


Pub Date: May 8th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-149219-8
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Smoller (Psychiatry and Epidemiology/Harvard Univ.; co-author: Psychiatric Genetics, 2008) suggests that “[l]ike the purloined letter of Poe's tale, many of the most fundamental features of the normal mind have been hidden in plain sight.”

The author uses the 2010 announcement by the American Psychiatric Association of provisional plans to revise the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an opportunity to revisit the hot-button issue of what constitutes mental disease. In his opinion, one of the shortcomings of the DSM is its creation of “categories from constellations of symptoms” without understanding how they connect to the “functional organization of the mind and brain.” While Smoller recognizes that it is sometimes necessary to treat an illness such as delirium without understanding its basic cause, he believes that the process of diagnosis and treatment can be dramatically improved by recognizing syndromes as “perturbations of normal systems and mechanisms.” He identifies spectrums of normal behavior, citing research showing that temperamental qualities in adults—for example, being easygoing or prone to anxiety—can be traced to early childhood. Although it is not possible yet to clarify the nurture/nature debate, a correlation has been found between variations of specific genes associated with temperament and neurotransmitters. Brain scans have also identified differences in the brains of highly reactive individuals as compared to low-reactive infants. Smoller notes that while ADHD and similar disorders are often problematic today, such behavior might have conferred a reproductive advantage in previous eras of human evolution.

An informative overview of research in neuroscience that provides a scientific foundation for understanding mental disorders.