Monday, January 18, 2016

Infectious Madness - Harriet A Washington

Sub-title: The Surprising science of how we "catch" mental illness

The cover caught my eye on this one when I was in the library.  The author discusses studies and case histories that indicate that some mental illness may be caused by infections and our bodies immune system's reaction to them.  She refers to some conditions which were in the past attributed to mental illness that are recognized today as being caused by bacteria, viruses or other pathogens.  Without treatment, a disease would lead to dementia and bizarre behaviors associated with mental illness.

Once anecdote is that in 1872 cat ownership became popular in America.  That same year brought a sharp rise in U.S. schizophrenia rates.  Cats carry a zoonotic infection (a disease humans acquire from animals) that causes schizophrenia.

Paresis was once a familiar species of madness, given to one in five patients in mental asylums in New York by the 1920s.  Individuals experienced coarsening of the personality followed by mania, vivid delusions, and dementia and it was viewed as a punishment for depravity.  It was found to be caused by the disease, syphilis, which today is treated with antibiotics.

She points out the tendency for the medical community to maintain the status quo and dismiss different hypotheses for the cause of an illness, and suggests it is a reason more research is not done on the role of infectious agents in mental illnesses.

She relates cases of autism, bipolar depression, schizophrenia, OCD, and other mental conditions being linked to infections such as strep throat, influenza and measles.

The author has a B.A. in English and completed a fellowship in Public Health at Harvard and in medical ethics at Stanford.  She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008 for her book Medical Apartheid, about the treatment of African-Americans in the health care system.

While the science was not rigorous I thought the subject had merit and I agree with her that in the future we may find closer ties between infections and their impact on our mental health.

Published:  2015  Read: January 2016  Genre: Non-fiction, medical science

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