Being a biochemist and interested in what goes on in cells, I approach the whole subject of mental disease very differently from non-biologically oriented psychiatrists. I feel as sure as here I sit, that there is always something wrong with the brain cells and their metabolic processes in a mentally ill person.
How can there be something wrong with the chemical processes taking place in the brain cells? This is easy. The chemical activities of brain cells can be impaired in a hundred different ways. There are many drugs that can poison them and there are many nutrient substances that the brain cells may have difficulty getting from their environment continuously and in adequate amounts. These nutrients include minerals and trace minerals, the amino acids, and all the vitamins that metabolizing cells need.
The brain cells are helpless in getting good nutrition unless we eat the right kind of food. If these cells are not furnished with excellent food—this happens more often than not—then the brain cells limp along as best they can like corn growing in a stony field without adequate fertilization or water.
One reason the metabolism of brain cells is potentially so important in mental disease, is that the brain is a “hot spot” of metabolism in the body. Although the brain’s weight is only about two per cent of the whole body weight, the chemical burning that actually takes place there every minute of our lives may be 20-25 percent of the total burning in the body. Any weak link in the chain of this burning machinery can mean mental disease.
Even healthy nerve cells, it is reasonable to suppose, can be nourished at many levels of efficiency. And nerve cells, being distinctive, are going to have distinctive nutritional requirements. We know, for instance, that the cells which produce the thyroid hormone are the only ones known to need iodine. The cells which produce insulin must require extraordinarily high amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids, because the hormone insulin has a very high sulfur content.
In the light of this background material we are ready to discuss the causes of mental disease. All those who have contact with this problem have been impressed in recent years with the probability that all mental disease has a biochemical basis. The outstanding investigations of D. W. Woolley who wrote The Biochemical Bases of Psychoses point in this direction. And while not enough investigative research has been done in this area, there have been some rather phenomenal advances made in the treatment of mental disease. All have involved, not psychological means, but rather physical and chemical means, such as insulin shock, electric shock treatments, administration of lithium, etc., making obsolete the concept of mental disease as purely psychological phenomena.
The successful application of such treatment is in indirect support of our thesis, but there are studies which show a direct cause and effect relationship between poor nutrition and mental disturbances.
There is abundant evidence indicating that nervous tissue is impaired when there are nutritional lacks. Nerve degeneration was observed early in the study of vitamin B 1 deficiency (in fact, the suggestive name aneurin has often been used to designate this vitamin). Mild deficiency of this vitamin causes irritability, loss of memory, loss of appetite, etc. Deficiencies of pantothenic acid and riboflavin have each been found