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Issue 19 Science (of) Fiction

A Beautiful Mind: What is our brain chemistry capable of?

🕒 7 min

For the longest time I have been deciding what my first article for this blog should be about. Since I’m interested in almost anything that comes into my hands and brain (as every proper science enthusiast 😊), it was not easy to decide on just one topic. But then it came to me. Not too long ago I watched a movie that definitely didn’t leave me apathetic, so I came to the logical conclusion to share it with you. “A Beautiful Mind” is a perfect example of science in everyday life, so I wanted to delve into it more closely and in as much detail as possible. Before I start the analysis of this wonderful movie, I should take a moment and warn you that there are going to be spoilers along the way, so if you want to watch the movie first, I highly recommend you do so.

“A Beautiful Mind” is a biographical drama based on the life of the American mathematician and Nobel Laureate in Economics, John Forbes Nash. The movie was inspired by the bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography by Sylvia Nasar, bearing the same name. At the beginning of the movie, we’re taken back to the 1940’s at Princeton University, where a new graduate student, John Nash, is struggling to find a truly original idea for his thesis work. On the other hand, he feels like most of his colleagues just don’t understand him, which is why he spends most of the time with his own thoughts. As John moves into his new room on the campus, we meet his roommate and soon-to-be best friend, literature student Charles, who seems to be the only one who understands him. As John is dedicated to his work, he soon manages to come up with the concept of governing dynamics, a theory in mathematical economics, and ends up being very successful. John’s success at Princeton brought him the prestigious position of Calculus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he meets his soon-to-be wife, Alicia. On his visit to Princeton, he meets Charles’ young niece Marcee, whom he immediately adores. Things started going downhill for John, when he encountered a mysterious detective called William Parcher, who recruited him for an important, top-secret assignment against the Russians. The new responsibility wasn’t easy on John, as he started to feel like everyone knows what he has been doing and is therefore chasing him.

John’s paranoid behaviour culminated when he thought that he was being watched by a group of hostile people while giving lecture at Harvard University. After the incident, he ends up sedated in a psychiatric facility. This is the turning point of the movie because we find out that John has been living in a delusion – Alicia tells him that detective William Parcher does not exist, and neither does the top-secret assignment. Even more fascinatingly, John’s best friend Charles and his beloved niece Marcee are also products of his mind. It is very hard on John to accept that he has been hallucinating and he is still convinced that the doctors at the facility are in fact Russian spies. Doctors diagnosed John with schizophrenia and started performing series of insulin shock therapy sessions, after which John was dismissed from the facility on one condition: that he agrees to take his antipsychotic medications. However, John experienced negative side effects of the medication that affected his relationship with Alicia, but also his scientific work, so he secretly stopped taking them and relapsed. In his final psychotic episode shown in the movie, John acted aggressively towards Alicia after she found out that he had been secretly working for detective Parcher, so she decides to leave him. As she was leaving, John was accompanied by Charles, Marcee and detective Parcher, and in this very moment John realized that Marcee is in fact a hallucination because she remained the same age since the day he met her.

This revelation helped John to finally cope with his condition. Consciously, he said goodbye to all three of his hallucinations telling them he wouldn’t speak to them anymore. After some time spent at home with his family, John decided to go back to Princeton in hope to get the chance to work. There, he indeed earns the privilege of teaching again. Though he was still suffering from hallucinations, he was taking newer medications, which made it easier to ignore psychotic episodes. At the very end of the movie, John is honoured by his fellow professors for his achievements in mathematics and goes to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics for his revolutionary work on game theory.

Schizophrenia is a disabling mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. It is characterized by positive symptoms, such as hallucinations, delusions and irrational thinking; and negative symptoms, such as lack of emotion, lack of the ability to experience pleasure and cognitive deficits, often seen as lack of attention, memory and speech impairment. All the mentioned symptoms are often followed by depression, anxiety, aggression and suicidality.

The cause is still unknown, but there is strong evidence that it is genetically inherited. For example, some studies have shown that infections like toxoplasmosis and influenza or drug consumption during pregnancy could be risk factors for the development of schizophrenic behaviour in the fetus. Also, genetic studies have determined that ten genes are included in the pathogenesis of the disorder, dysbindin and neurelegin 1 being the key ones. As it is very hard to conduct research on animal models, post-mortem studies of the brain have shown lots of neurochemical abnormalities, all related to four important neurotransmitters – dopamine (DA), serotonin (5-HT), glutamate (GLUT) and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Significant change in dopaminergic transmission was shown to be the most important in pathogenesis, as the hyperfunction in the mesolimbic pathway and hypofunction in the mesocortical pathway lead to positive symptoms of schizophrenia. Changes such as the reduction of functional inhibiting interneurons, pyramidal cells and interneural connections in the frontal cortex lead to shrinkage of the hippocampus and enlargement of the brain chambers.

Source: quora.com

Today, existing therapies for schizophrenia include three generations of antipsychotic drugs. Typical antipsychotics, or the first generation, selectively inhibit dopamine D2 receptors by strongly binding to the receptor, which causes all kinds of side effects but successfully eliminates positive symptoms. Atypical antipsychotics, the second generation, are not that selective to one type of receptor, so they block all kinds of dopamine receptors. This can result in better therapeutic effects – control of positive and negative symptoms – but it can also cause various side effects. The third generation of antipsychotics is, for now, the closest we can get to the “ideal antipsychotic drug” because they work in a smart way – where the dopaminergic transmission should be amplified, they activate dopamine receptors, and where it should be reduced, they block them. That’s why the third generation of drugs controls positive and negative symptoms, but also minimizes possible cognitive deficits.

So, to summarise, there were several signs of John’s schizophrenia that we could see in the movie. The way that he wanted to spend most of his time alone and “was better with numbers than people” is a negative symptom of schizophrenia. He was also full of different ideas and some studies have shown that being susceptible to schizophrenic spectrum disorders may increase the likelihood of new, original ideas. There were also some studies that argued the possible link between schizophrenia and high IQ, showing that in most patients there was a high decrease in IQ, while there were also smaller groups with high intelligence that were affected, but the patterns were too small to generate any conclusions. John’s hallucinations, being both visual and auditory, were so real to him that he couldn’t differentiate his psychosis from real life. It is important to note that in real life, John Nash suffered only from auditory hallucinations. In some way, it could be said that his ambition and dedication to his scientific work helped him cope with the symptoms of this mental disorder and helped him function normally to some extent. As the great Aristotle once said: “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.”

Have you seen the movie? Has it or this post prompted you to study schizophrenic disorders in more detail? Let us know in the comments.

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