Sunday, September 01, 2013

The mind-body riddle

Advice - Mind, Body and Family, Sep '13
By Dr. Tirthankar Guha Thakurta

The human mind has, through the ages, inspired and confused philosophers and scientists alike. The concept of mind includes complex functions like consciousness, cognition, feelings, thoughts and dreams. Much of our understanding of neuroscience tells us how much more we are yet to learn about this fascinating machinery.

The functional unit of the brain (and the rest of the nervous system) is formed of very tiny units called the neurons or nerve cells. They carry chemical and electrical signals through an extremely zigzag network in the brain that result in our thoughts and behaviours. In the past few decades much of the brain’s functions have been ‘mapped’ and we know, for example, which parts of the brain make us recite a poem or solve a geometrical puzzle.

The chemical codes of the brain are continuously being solved, which have thrown light on a basketful of molecules like dopamine, serotonin, acetyl choline and a hundred others that control our day-to-day mind-games. The behavioural models of mind have been translated in most cases into neat physical maps. It is again fascinating to learn that most complex brain networks can be broken down to simple binary algorithms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

The evolution of such a physical structure of mind has often disappointed abstract theorists who would have preferred the cloud of confusion to prevail. Why do we get so disturbed when a prevailing model becomes more defined and predictable? Does our existing faith in the less precise suddenly make us feel ‘too ignorant and small’ in the light of the more precise? Does the emergence of a simple truth threaten the aura of the complex faith that we have built so far?

Do we fear that physical theory would make us look helpless in the hands of some chemical molecules? Is our understanding of this physical model sufficient to account for human conscience and responsibility?

Well, the answer to this simple question can be complex – the mind knows better!

Reader queries

My mother is 50 years old and has been diagnosed with severe depression. She is currently undergoing treatment at a specialized centre in Bangalore. The doctors have advised her to take some anti-depressant pills (Sertraline) and receive counselling sessions every week. She is slowly recovering from her melancholic state. I have heard from friends that chemicals present in such pills can harm our brains. Is it wise to continue the medicines? Will my mother’s personality change if she continues to take such pills?
Anonymous, Bangalore

Dear Anonymous

Depression is associated with low levels of some chemicals like serotonin in certain parts of our brain. The medication that you mentioned increases the levels of serotonin in our brain and corrects the deficit. The same happens when you consume a bar of dark chocolate. Counselling or psycho-therapy help in re-orienting our thought processes that additionally help us cope with the situation. Each therapy comes with its small packet of additional effects (commonly called side effects) that are closely monitored by health care providers.

The prevailing myth that anti-depressants are harmful is not based on science, but irrational fear. When you treat a burn on your finger with an ointment, it attempts to restore the normal structure and function of the finger and not change the finger into a hotdog! Similarly, medicines used in mental health problems aim to restore the brain function and not change the individual.

Why is it important for a person above 30 years to go for regular health check-ups? What types of checks should be done on a regular basis and what should be the frequency?
Santanu, Kolkata

Dear Santanu

As we age, chances of health disorders increase. While some disorders are readily recognised (like a flu), some others progress silently until they cause a catastrophe (like uncontrolled high blood pressure or blood sugar increasing the chances of a fatal heart attack or a paralysing stroke). The risk of the second group of disorders can be reduced by frequent check-ups, even when there is no apparent discomfort. This process of searching for a silent disease is called screening.

The list of tests and the frequency of check-ups vary from person to person depending on the past and family history and present health. Usually a tri-monthly blood pressure check-up and an annual blood sugar, lipid profile and creatinine check-up can be included in the list of most people above 30 who are asymptomatic. But this should always be done in consultation with a qualified medical practitioner.

Confused? Disturbed? Just inquisitive? Write in any query on the mind, body and family to, and Dr. TirthankarGuhaThakurta, teaching faculty at a Kolkata-based medical college, will be happy to answer them – with due respect to confidentiality.

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