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What is Biological Psychiatry?

By Donn Saylor
Updated May 17, 2024
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Biological psychiatry is a type of psychiatric thought that analyzes mental disorders from chemical, neurological, and physical viewpoints and prescribes treatment plans accordingly. Also known as biopsychiatry, this approach draws wisdom from various scientific disciplines, including biology, genetics, neuroscience, and psychopharmacology. At the epicenter of biological psychiatry is the intent to understand mental illness as a product of the biological functioning of the nervous system.

The roots of biological psychiatry stretch back to the Greek physician Hippocrates, who possessed a keen interest in the biological sources of mental disorders, but it was Sigmund Freud who conducted the first in-depth studies. Freud spent a significant amount of time attempting to understand mental constructs and illnesses from a neurological level but eventually turned his focus to psychoanalysis. Over the next century, science would continue looking for biological factors, which it would find, at least to a certain extent, with the advent of antidepressant and antipsychotic drugs. Drugs like imipramine and Thorazine®, which encouraged biological processes and healthy chemical operation, had a profound impact on the study of the nervous system's relationship with mental illness.

The majority of research conducted in the field of biological psychiatry is centered on the major classes of mental illness, principally on the biology of unipolar and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease. Biological psychiatrists utilize tools from many different scientific fields to better grasp the biological components of these illnesses. Brain imaging, medications, and diet and exercise plans are just a few examples of the diagnostic tools employed by biological psychiatrists.

Psychoanalysis also plays a role in behavior psychiatry. Various schools of psychoanalytic thought — behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, gestalt therapy, group therapy, and rational-emotive therapy, to name a few — are often implemented to gain a more thorough understanding of a patient's condition. Psychoanalysis can further illuminate issues relating to the illness, and most modern theories of biological psychiatry teach this twofold approach of the biological and the psychodynamic.

The field of biological psychiatry is not without its critics, however. Some say there is no dependable testing method to determine a biological basis for mental illness. Several academic and scientific publications support this claim; they reject the notion that mental disorders or emotional disturbances could have some firm root in the patient's biological makeup. Even R.D. Laing, the renowned Scottish psychiatrist, was leery of biological psychiatry, stating that the diagnostic processes used in identifying biological factors as cause for a patient's mental illness are inherently unsound.

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