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The Effects of Mental Illness on the Brain


We often exercise and watch our diet to avoid lifestyle diseases and live a healthy and comfortable life. We make the effort because we know the importance of our physical health. However, many of us are not as conscious of our mental health. Many among us still think that mental health treatments are only for very specific and adverse mental illnesses.

Your mental health plays a crucial role in the quality of life you enjoy and how you handle relationships. Scientists do not know the exact causes of mental illnesses, however, they can link mental illnesses to several factors, and among them are genes.
Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are hereditary, transferred from an affected parent to their offspring. Other causes of mental illnesses include:

  • Abuse
  • Extended isolation or loneliness
  • Prolonged stress
  • Brain injuries
  • Long-term medical conditions and ailments
  • Extended drug and substance abuse

Mental illnesses are normal diseases, like physical ones. Mental health treatments like psychotherapy, medication, or peer support in a residential treatment center are available to support patients battling mental health issues. You can also practice healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress to reduce your mental load.

Until the recent campaigns for mental health, people did not treat mental illnesses and addiction treatment with care. Patients with the need for mental health treatment and addiction recovery support mechanisms often suffered in silence and adopted unhealthy coping mechanisms. Alcohol and substance abuse is one of the most common forms of escape for people with mental illnesses.

Fortunately, many detox centers and sober living communities that offer mental health treatment have come up in recent years where you can get a blend of therapies to assist with anxiety and trauma treatment and several other addictions, including alcohol, drug, and gambling addictions.

To help us get a better understanding of mental illnesses and their corresponding mental health treatment options, we need to understand what impact mental illnesses have on the brain. We also need to understand how the brain is designed and how it functions normally.

Brainwaves and Neurotransmitters

The brain is responsible for how we experience living. We get information from our sensory organs, and the brain interprets the information for us. The brain is also responsible for maintaining the various systems in the body such as the:

  • Nervous system
  • Breathing system
  • Reproductive system
  • Digestive system
  • Endocrine system
  • Cardiovascular system

The brain plays a crucial role in all these systems and ensures normal functioning. The brain needs to pass messages to communicate and get feedback from all the different parts and systems in the body. It relies on the spine as a channel for the message to each part of the body.

The duty of passing messages falls on a set of specialized cells called neurons. Neurons act as messengers between the brain and the rest of the body and parts that need to secrete chemicals required for normal body functioning.

For neurons to communicate with each other, they get electrical signals across the gap between them. This gap is called the synapse. As electrical signals pass through the synapse, a neurotransmitter is released, which then conveys the message.

Different types of neurotransmitters in the human body carry out different functions. Some of the most common neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and Gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABBA). These specific hormones are closely tied to human behavior and reactions.

Brainwaves are another result of the electrical signals passing between neurons. The electrical signal can be measured using an electroencephalograph (EEG) and categorized. There are 5 different categories of brainwaves:

  • Gamma
  • Beta
  • Alpha
  • Delta
  • Theta

The waves also have subdivisions, and each category of brainwave is produced during a specific activity. For instance, beta waves are produced when you need to concentrate and think critically. Alpha waves are generated when you are relaxing or idle. Thus, understanding brainwaves is crucial to enhance or treat mental health conditions and well-being.

Technical Advancements to Measure Changes in the Brain

The Effects of Mental Illness on the Brain - Omnipemf 3

Source: Pixabay

Mental health treatments and diagnoses are based on the symptoms and behavior a person suffering from a mental illness exhibits. Medical professionals also make a treatment plan based on the same information. However, there is a possibility for better and more accurate treatment or cure.

If scientists can accurately determine the chemical changes in the brain caused by mental illness, they can offer better mental health treatment options. Thanks to modern technology, scientists can visualize the chemical changes in the brain in real-time.

Studying the Brain to Measure Mental Well-Being

Several techniques can study the brain. However, most are only performed on adults because the patient has to be exposed to radiation, and the procedures are invasive. A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is one of these techniques often used.

PET scan involves studying the movement and spatial distribution of a radioactive chemical. The scan is performed on an individual when they are conscious. After injection, a computer generates a two- or three-dimensional image of the PET scan results. The results give the doctors information about brain activity in certain areas.

Scientists can also rely on:

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
  • Single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT)
  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)
  • Electroencephalography (EEG)

MRIs are used to analyze the change in the brain’s structure. Scientists compare a healthy brain and its structure to the patient’s brain to determine if there are any differences.

One groundbreaking discovery is the notable difference in the size of the ventricles in a schizophrenic brain compared to a normal brain. The results have shown that people with schizophrenia have larger spaces within the brain.

Understanding Neurotransmitters to Design Mental Health Treatment Plans

Mental illnesses are linked to communication problems between neurons and the neurotransmitters involved. Understanding the relationship between the physical changes in the brain and mental illnesses significantly helps to design the best treatment plan for each mental health condition.

As indicated earlier, some neurotransmitters released during the communication between neurons impact mood. One of them is dopamine. Dopamine affects behavior such as desire, arousal, craving, and pleasure, while serotonin affects thinking, learning, a person’s moods, and emotions.

How Does Brain Activity Change With an Underlying Condition?

Considering an example, individuals suffering from depression have a low level of serotonin. To combat these low serotonin levels, we can introduce selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) into the body system. These inhibitors will reduce the amount of serotonin reabsorbed into the presynaptic neuron. As a result, the body has more serotonin levels, and depression subsides.

Similarly, a disruption in neurotransmitters affects the mood of the individual and even worsens certain conditions. Fortunately, medicines can help you deal with deficiency or low levels of neurotransmitters.

Having a neurotransmitter in excess may also be harmful. High levels of dopamine have been associated with hallucinations among people with mental disorders such as bipolar. Therefore, your neurotransmitter levels need to be balanced.

Unfortunately, since most mental illnesses are often accompanied by substance abuse, keeping the balance is difficult. Drugs and alcohol alter the release of neurotransmitters. In a state of addiction, the impact is even worse. Your body is constantly producing chemicals and hormones in response to your addiction.

Impact of Mental Illness on Brain Structure and Activity

The Effects of Mental Illness on the Brain - Omnipemf 4

Source: Pixabay

Untreated mental health conditions like schizophrenia can physically affect your brain once and for all. Below are a few mental health conditions and a few ways in which they alter brain activity.

  • Schizophrenia
    Schizophrenia causes an enlargement in the areas of the brain ventricles and a reduction of gray matter in the brain. The compression caused by the condition affects the brain’s communication network. Interruption of brain communication channels can result in hallucinations, delusions, and low concentration spans.
    Schizophrenia patients also vary in terms of ability. Some patients can barely complete behavioral tasks because of how demanding and intense the tasks are to them. Others perform tasks with fewer problems.
    The difference in energy used indicates the varying brain activity. The difference in the effort used also shows that there might be a problem with neural communication.
  • Depression
    Clinical depression can cause shrinking in certain parts of the brain. Depression affects the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which affect human emotion and concentration. This change would make everyday tasks difficult and bring hopelessness to a patient.
  • Anxiety
    Anxiety disorders are always accompanied by stress. Extended periods of stress may shrink the hippocampus and mess with your ability to make memories. Your brain may also adapt to remember only failure and danger. Memories of your success and achievements will slowly be forgotten and replaced with negative ones.

Benefits of Seeking Early Treatment

These alarming physical changes alter the brain activity and the behavior of the affected individual. Hence, seeking mental health treatment or addiction treatment at the earliest can greatly support the recovery of affected individuals.

If left untreated, mental health conditions can deteriorate the health of the brain further and make recovery more difficult. With early treatment:

  • You may experience less severe symptoms.
  • You learn to self-identify early signs and learn coping mechanisms early.
  • You spend less time in rehab
  • Medications and residential treatment centers are likely to make fuller recovery possible in the early stages of the illness.
  • Your relationships are not affected as much.
  • You can build your support system early.


Mental illnesses are a normal part of life and should be treated like every other physical disease. It may seem easier to use drugs to postpone facing the disease, but it may cost you more. There are homes all around the country that are offering treatment for mental illnesses, and some even offer help with substance addiction.

Failing to get treatment for mental illnesses will have lasting effects. Some mental illnesses alter the structure of your brain, while other diseases ruin communication networks. Damaged communication networks would make daily tasks difficult. You will have trouble living your life normally. Therefore, address the mental disorders that you or your loved one is facing as fast as possible.






About the author

Joni Ogle, Chief Executive Officer at The heights treatment, has over 25 years of clinical experience, management, and leadership in working with adults and young adults suffering from addiction and trauma.

She is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified sex addiction therapist with additional training in Recreational Therapy, Pia Mellody’s Post Induction Therapy, and Dr. Brené Brown’s The Daring Way Shame Resilience curriculum.


NeoRhythm has not been evaluated by the FDA. These products do not claim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical conditions. Always consult your medical doctor regarding any health concerns.

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