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Current Biology published a study this past Thursday finding that some of the most widely used antidepressants change the brain’s architecture only a few hours after use.

This breakthrough means that medicine could potentially treat individuals on the basis of a brain scan as well as traditional methods of cognitive behavioural therapy and discussion-based approaches to determine a diagnosis.

That drugs change the architecture of the brain and corresponding cognitive abilities is not new, and psychology applicants would do well to read the easily accessible work of Oliver Sacks. In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he discusses six different case studies of people with atypical aphasias and sensory perceptions due to brain damage. The ability to locate where certain activities occur in the brain, as this study has demonstrated, is of incredible importance to medicine, and the ability to enhance diagnoses and assess symptoms.

The idea of drugs changing the composition of brain matter also should make us query the divide between physical and mental illnesses – this Cartesian dualism is argued by many to be the basis of misunderstandings and stigmatisation of mental health issues, where they can sometimes be perceived as controllable or voluntary in a way that ‘physical’ ailments are not. The division of mind and body is a phenomenon particular to the Western world and is of great importance to understanding Descartes’ philosophy, whereas it is much more common to the rest of the world to treat patients as holistic entities and not just their bodies.

Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist, calls this idea the ‘illness narrative’, whereby diagnosis and understanding of illness must take into account readable, measurable symptoms as well as the discussed, personal narrative of illness on behalf of the patient without privileging one over the other. HSPS applicants looking to broaden their anthropology readings should consider how the work of someone like Arthur Kleinman works to expand the applications of medicine to more of the globe, by easing cultural communication and understandings of illness and treatment.

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