Among its top 10 research advances of the past year, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points to two medications that hold out promise for new approaches to combating depression; important strides in understanding autism, specifically brain structure and connections; and a rare special issue of the premier science journal Nature devoted to schizophrenia, one of the most debilitating of all mental disorders.
6: Next Gen antidepressants. Antidepressant medications and cognitive behavioral therapy generally require six to eight weeks to have an effect. But ketamine, primarily used as a veterinary anesthetic, and scopolamine, an anti-nausea drug, have been shown in experiments to reduce depression in a mere six hours.
New research this year outlined for the first time how the brain responds to ketamine, as well as novel approaches to neurochemical intervention. According to the NIMH, “While several pharmaceutical companies moved away from psychiatric medication development this year, the scientific opportunities for new targets and new approaches have never been better.”
7. The autistic brain. Little has been known until recently about what makes the brain of someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) different from someone without the disease, even though it’s well-known that something goes awry in the developing autistic brain. A number of studies in 2010 looked at mapping those differences in neuroanatomy; for example, one study explored, via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), brain activity in response to social information in children with ASD, their unaffected siblings, and controls.
Interestingly, both children with ASD and their unaffected siblings showed different patterns of activity in some areas than controls – and the unaffected siblings appeared to compensate for the difference by amping up brain activity in other regions.
10. The Nature of schizophrenia. What many consider the world’s top science journal gave over much of its November issue to a thoroughgoing examination of schizophrenia, the severe, often disabling mental illness characterized by hallucinations, delusions, disordered thinking and impaired emotional responsiveness.
Among the articles in the special issue of Nature is a consideration of how the social environment affects the onset and expression of the illness; how the illness is intertwined with the developmental hallmarks of adolescence; and the struggle to achieve significant advances in medication therapy in the wake of studies showing little change in patient outcomes a half-century after the introduction of the first antipsychotic drug, chlorpromazine.