Will science explain mental illness?

debate.JPGThe latest issue of Prospect magazine features a juicy debate – “Will science explain mental illness?“, with Peter McGuffin, director of the social, genetic & developmental psychiatry centre at King’s College London, arguing ‘yes’, and Steven Rose (pictured right), director of the brain and behaviour research group at the Open University, arguing ‘no’.

McGuffin opens the debate by outlining how science has led to some major advances in the treatment of mental illness, including the development of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), anti-depressant medication and anti-psychotics. He also points to the potential of new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging, and the promise of psychiatric genetics, with at least one gene implicated in the uptake of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that depressed people don’t seem to have enough of) already identified. “Real advances have been made, and the pace is quickening”, McGuffin says.

But in his initial retort, Rose takes aim at the fuzziness of psychiatric diagnoses and argues that finding treatments for an illness doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve explained it. “Aspirin alleviates toothache, but we don’t conclude that the cause of toothache is too little aspirin in the brain”, he says. Rose is particularly unconvinced of the value in looking for genes implicated in mental illness. “Today’s attempts to locate causes in genes will, in 100 years, seem as misguided as Freud’s classifications”, he predicts.

Non-subscribers can click here to purchase online access to the debate.

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