But only a sliver of hope, because development of psychiatric drugs have been stuck in neutral for about 10 years. One of the problems is that the human brain is such a complex organism that the sort of animal experiments used to develop medications for other diseases really don’t apply to the development of treatments for mental illnesses.
STAT looks at the problem, citing the building of a $20 million center at MIT to study autism. Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, tells STAT that even those mental illnesses that are biologically based—PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia—are more difficult to understand because of the absence of animal models. “It took literally decades of work in the cancer field before we got to a level of mechanistic understanding. That’s what the field has been missing all this time.”
Meanwhile, many people with mental illnesses find themselves taking medications that might last for awhile, even for years, but then lose their potency and a new “cocktail” of medications must be tried. Often it takes some trial and error before the patient begins to feel better.
Pharmaceutical companies don’t seem to have much incentive to correct this, as the number of trials for mental health drugs shrunk 70% in the last decade.
“To advance the field, researchers say they need to find biomarkers—tangible biological clues that can help diagnose mental illness, just the way high blood glucose levels can signal diabetes,” STAT reports. “The hope is that those biomarkers could help pinpoint what’s gone wrong in the circuitry of a particular patient’s brain and offer clues for drug development—and, perhaps one day, even precision psychiatric therapies. But that’s far easier said than done.”