Brain On The Brain

CHAUTAUQUA – Schizophrenia is one of the worst diseases affecting mankind today, according to Daniel R. Weinberger, Chautauqua Institution’s Tuesday morning lecturer.

Weinberger talked to those in attendance about the brain. He mentioned that newspapers today always seem to have articles regarding the brain, how it functions and specific mental illnesses. Until very recently, Weinberger said that the world knew very little about what mental illness really was.

“These are not diseases,” Weinberger said. “We know what it looks like and we can give it a label. These are collections of characteristics that form to certain categories and we give them labels. These are abnormalities of thinking, mood and behavior. We’ve had very little scientific data on what mental disorders really are.”

Weinberger is well-known for his knowledge of schizophrenia. He has been the director and CEO for the Lieber Institute for Brain Development since 2011. He attended Johns Hopkins University and medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He did residencies in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and in neurology at George Washington University. According to the Lieber Institute, his lab identified the first specific genetic mechanism of risk for schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a common disorder that occurs in about 1 percent of the world population. It’s one of the worst mental illnesses affecting mankind, Weinberger said. Schizophrenia is a serious chronic disorder that involves aspects of cognition and perception. Signs of the mental disorder occur during the late adolescent stage, just at the time when the individual begins their adult life. It’s the fourth most costly disease in world societies, according to Weinberger and the World Health Organization.

“In many countries it isn’t diagnosed because there’s so much societal shame associated with this in many cultures,” Weinberger said. “Treatments are almost always inadequate. There’s no prevention.”

Weinberger talked about his time spent at Harvard Medical School and specifically how people became diagnosed with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, they thought at the time, was caused by mothers, and they were blamed for most mental disorders.

“There was absolutely no scientific or objective scientific evidence supporting these hypotheses,” Weinberger said. “But this was the prevailed hypothesis. As a trainee at the time, I didn’t know how these profound disorders could be the result from a mother. It was embraced by a large segment of the professional world.”

The environment, however, is difficult to study because it is not objective, according to Weinberger. It’s all about how the environment feels to an individual. The environment is dependent on the person who’s experiencing it.

Genes are the biggest factors that play into mental illnesses, Weinberger said. It is now known that genes and the environment are the critical factors.

“All common medical disorders, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and schizophrenia, are all genetic factors that make your risk greater and affect susceptibility,” Weinberger said.

Over 400 genes are associated with the risk of schizophrenia, according to Weinberger. With all the knowledge that has been gathered and the technological advances, Weinberger said now is the time to make advances regarding mental illnesses.

“Now that we have some real hard evidence of the causes and mechanisms, we have to get better,” Weinberger said. “This is, to me, the challenge of our time.”

The series of talks will continue Wednesday with Scott F. Giberson. He is the acting United States deputy surgeon general. Thursday’s lecturer will be Martha Hill. She served as dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing from 2001 until early 2014. The week of lecturers will end Friday with John R. Lumpkin, vice president and director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Care Group.