Exploring Neurobiology and Behavior

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Biology 202
2006 Book Commentaries
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Exploring Neurobiology and Behavior

Danielle Marck


Kay Redfield Jamison has captured the true nature of manic depressive disorder and characterized its manifestations among many prominent artists throughout history. Jamison's novel, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Disorder and the Artistic Temperament bridges on those symptoms associated with manic depressive disorder (melancholy, depression, mania) and links them to writers and artists who experience commonalities of the disease and who come from a family lineage with symptomatic similarities. Jamison immerses the reader into the complex and tumultuous lives of writers and takes you through anecdotes of their daily experiences to elucidate the symptomatic characteristics of manic depressive disorder. The author cleverly connects these anecdotes and the artists' written work to specific symptomatic characteristics of the disease and how certain moods can inspire and heighten the artistic imagination. Analysis of famous writers and their family lineage, conducted by the author and others, reveals important evidence that supports the link between genetic heritability of psychiatric disease and the artistic genius that results. The author concludes by outlining the possibilities linking genetic heritability of the disease and the artistic ability that arises, and analyzes the effects of the treatments for manic depressive disorder. Jamison presents questions as to the effectiveness of treatment and the complete banishment of the "artistic temperament" seen as a result of manic depressive disorder.

Similar to the organization of the novel by Jamison, the course Neurobiology and Behavior, taught by Professor Paul Grobstein, took the same approach to exploring neurobiological topics, starting with the standard view of a topic and then going further with new evidence and methods of thought. While the course did not focus on psychosis or diseases including manic depressive disorder, the course provided incite as to the biological functioning within the brain and nervous system. The course established a clear and unbiased understanding of how the brain works and presented a new way of engaging in science and constructing conclusions. While analysis and class discussions focused on the nervous system and trying to understand its complexities, the lecture did not directly focus on how to apply these findings to different diseases and instead facilitated and inspired each student's own curiosities.

The author beings the detailed description of manic depression with a look at what the disease entails (the ups and downs) and takes both an anecdotal and clinical approach. The general overview of the disease starts with a description of mania and hypomania, mixed manic and depressed states, suicidal delusions, and cyclothymia. Jamison leads the reader into a description of the two main forms of manic depression, Bipolar I and Bipolar II disorder and gives a thorough and concise overview of both forms, one being the classical view of the disorder having both mania and a major depressive episode, and two, the presence or history of a major depressive episode.(14) The book does not overwhelm the reader with scientific terminology and provides a helpful appendix for more complicated topics. Similarly, the course Neurobiology and Behavior did not concentrate on the complexities of science but discussed the basics and made them clear for all students even those not familiar with scientific terminology. For instance, we covered the nervous system in detail starting with a comparison of the "spaghetti" model of the nervous system to the input/output compartmentalized approach. The course delved into the molecular level of the neuronal pathways and studied the detailed signaling pathways of inputs and their outputs. While one might think a signal must be initiated via an exogenous input, the course disproved this theory showing the ability of a signal to commence within the nervous system itself and change pathways as well.

Further, the novel compared information from artists and writers with the disease and searched for similarities and differences between an array of artists with manic depression. Jamison shows prevalence of manic depression among artists by visual representations as graphs and data tables that compare different artists and biographical information regarding their psychosis. Tables included information on mood disorders and suicide in British and Irish poets (born between 1705-1805), and the lifetime prevalence of mental illness in writers and control subjects using the research diagnostic criteria. (70-77) Compared to the control subjects, writers showed an increase in all bipolar disorders by 43% compared to the control group which showed 10% prevalence. (77) It is interesting to see how the data supports the link between artistic talent and manic depression. Jamison then continues her analysis with a graph showing rates of treatment for mood disorders in a sample of writers and artists.(77) The data clearly expresses the increased level of psychosis in poets, playwrights, novelists, biographers, and artists in comparison to the general population. Similar, to the manner in which Jamison takes standard manic depressive diagnosis and applies it to artists, in the course Neurobiology and Behavior, topics about the brain and nervous system were applied to examples from our daily experiences. For example, the tragic disability of Christopher Reeves and the severing of his spinal cord was a topic of interest. Many doctors and scientists said that Reeves was paralyzed but when his toe was pinched he responded with a flinch. Reeve's movement suggests that paralysis is not a viable method of categorizing his condition because the nervous system could take the pinch as an input and relay it though the nervous system. Reeve's condition should take into account the ability of the nervous system to respond to stimuli but Reeve's inability to consciously and willingly move his foot. We discussed behaviors as a series of action potentials that one can recognize either voluntarily or involuntarily. Behavior was analyzed through specific vision exercises and everyday movements which was helpful in conveying the true meaning of an action potential and signaling pathway.

Jamison concluded her book with a summary of what her observations meant in terms of artistic behavior and manic depression. The author compared the family lineage between a variety of artists and observed the commonalities in their psychosis and artistic talents. Artists included Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Schumann, Herman Melville, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemmingway, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name a few. Surprisingly, these artists who suffered from manic depression showed a prevalent family history of the disease and other related disorders. The author emphasizes that the characteristics seen in manic depressive disorder manifest themselves in a "constellation or pattern of symptoms [evolving] that is characteristic of a highly genetic disease" (245). Jamison finishes her argument with the important genetic basis of manic depressive disorder and how treatment could potentially hold the power to eliminate the artistic talent. She exhibits an interesting concern for the artistic world and how present day artistic talents are difficult to find, perhaps due to the new methods of diagnosis and cure for manic depressive disorder. Similarly, the course on Neurobiology and Behavior came to a close with discussions on visions, lateral inhibition and dreaming. The discussions on dreaming resulted in insightful conclusions about the complexity of brain function during deep sleep and how the "I-function" and nervous system relate to all the sensations of a dream. Exploring the world of dreaming was a nice way to end the course because it brought together many of the topics discussed throughout the course, including patterns of action potentials, vision, and the "I-function".

While the novel by Jamison and the course on Neurobiology and Behavior shared similarities in structure, the course did not focus on how the nervous system related to psychosis. It would have been interesting to spend time focusing on mental illness and the nervous system and the chemical pathways that are interrupted as a result of the disease. Further, it would have been helpful to explore the chemical pathways in the brain to a further extent, and compare them according to the different levels of neural transmission. The novel was a nice addition to the course because it added another dimension to the topics discussed in class and took a different conceptual approach to the study and analysis of psychosis.

Works Cited
Kay Redfield Jamison. "Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperment". Simon & Schuster, 1993

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