The molecular turn in psychiatry: A philosophical analysis

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 27 (3):287 – 296 (2002)
Abstract
Biological psychiatry has been dominated by a psychopharmacologically-driven neurotransmitter dysfunction paradigm. The objective of this paper is to explore a reductionist assumption underlying this paradigm, and to suggest an improvement on it. The methods used are conceptual analysis with a comparative approach, particularly using illustrations from the history of both biological psychiatry and molecular biology. The results are that complete reduction to physicochemical explanations is not fruitful, at least in the initial stages of research in the medical and life sciences, and that an appropriate (non-reducible) integrative principle - addressing a property of the whole system under study - is required for each domain of research. This is illustrated in Pauling's use of a topological integrative principle for the discovery of the functioning of proteins and in Watson and Crick's use of the notion of a genetic code as an integrative principle for the discovery of the structure of genes. The neurotransmitter dysfunction paradigm addresses single molecules and their neural pathways, yet their interactions within the CNS as a whole seem most pertinent to mental disorders such as schizophrenia. The lack within biological psychiatry of an integrative principle addressing a property of the CNS as a whole may be responsible for the empirical failure of orthomolecular psychiatry, as well as for the central role that serendipity has played in the study of mental disorders, which is dominated by the neurotransmitter paradigm. The conclusion is that research in biological psychiatry may benefit from using, at least initially, some integrative principle(s) addressing a property of the CNS as a whole, such as connectionism or a hierarchical notion.
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