BIG PHARMA: The Fiction of ADHD and the “Chemical Imbalance” Theory of Mental Illness – By Cortland Pffefer

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The belief that increasing dopamine levels will alleviate ADHD symptoms is why kids are treated with stimulants. There’s just one problem with the theory: it isn’t true.

On a trip to the zoo, there appeared to be a small gathering outside the wolverine display. As we approached we noticed this poor creature in a dead-sprint back-and-forth along and eight foot ledge. While the children found amusement in the wolverine’s bizarre behavior, most of the adults were able to show compassion for the “sick animal.”

“Oh he is still doing that,” said one of the adults behind me.

“Still!?” I asked, “How long has he been doing this?”

“Well, he was doing it last week, too.”

For over a week, this animal was sprinting back-and-forth on an eight foot ledge. Wolverines in the wild travel up to fifteen miles per day, and this one is in captivity in a space the size of an average living room.

The question is: is the Wolverine suffering a disease? Or is it a product of an unnatural environment?

There is actually nothing unnatural about the wolverine’s behavior based on its circumstance. A few more displays down the walkway and there is the black bear similarly pacing on a rock for the past month. The black bear also resides in an enclosure which is approximately 0.0018 percent of the natural habitat. Each and every day, they live in these crowded and unnatural quarters to have visitors pound on the glass, stare, point, laugh, make faces, and mocking this animal’s miserable existence as a prisoner.

These examples of what is termed zoochosis are quite obvious; these animals are not sick, but in fact they are intelligent enough to realize, despite their limited experience, that they are prisoners and there is much more to life than this constrained existence they have been presented. The animals start to get stressed, anxious and erratic, and display symptoms of psychosis. Something that quite rarely takes place in natural habititats – but is all too common in zoos.

If these animals were children today, they would most certainly fit the diagnosis for an array of mental “disorders”. Most likely, they would leave a psychiatrist’s office with the most prevailing diagnosis of children today – Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder (ADHD).

I returned to the zoo a few weeks later out of curiosity to check on the wolverine, but he wasn’t there. I went back a few more weeks later and he still was not on display. Eventually, about two months after our first encounter, I saw him back in his “home.” He was digging, playing in the water, and more entertaining for the customers to observe. While I could not get a straight answer from the zookeepers or staff, Like humans in psychiatric care, the common treatment is to put these animals in an even smaller cell while doping them up on psychotropic drugs, to help them cope with the life of captivity. After some research I learned that, much like humans, billions of dollars are spent each year on psychiatric medications that make wild animals behave more “normally” while they live an unnatural life behind bars, for humans to observe.

ADHD Stats

By definition, ADHD refers to a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity and impulsivity that interferes with a child’s functioning and development.

More than one in nine children from ages 4 to 17 are diagnosed with ADHD today, with two-thirds of those being boys. In the early 1990’s, less that 5-percent of children in the U.S. were diagnosed with ADHD. In 2003 it jumped to 7.3%, then 9.5% by 2007, more than 11% by 2011, and climbing. The average age of ADHD diagnosis was 7 years of age. Two out of every three children diagnosed with ADHD is being treated with psychotropic medications. [source: Centers for Disease Control]

So, with such a high prevalence of ADHD diagnosis among young children, it is important to understand the disorder. What is it? How does it come about? How do we treat it?

The Chemical Imbalance Theory

This theory states that ADHD is created by a chemical imbalance in the brain, suggesting that people with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine. Naturally, the fix to such an imbalance would include finding way to raise the level of dopamine in the brain, which would make the symptoms vanish.

The belief that increasing the dopamine levels will alleviate the symptoms of ADHD is why treating kids with stimulants is the primary treatment method; Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall are the most commonly prescribed drugs to children. Each one contains different formulations of methylphenidate, a powerful psychostimulant drug that works very similarly on the brain as cocaine and methamphetamine, by blocking a dopamine transporter and causing dopamine to build up in the synapse. This creates alertness and productivity.

There is just one small problem with the theory — it is not true. The chemical imbalance theory that is applied across the board to mental health “disorders” has never been scientifically proven, and yet we have been bombarded with symptom-focused Direct-to-Consumer pharmaceutical advertising for the past twenty years that tells us “[insert mental disorder here] may be caused by a chemical balance in your brain… [insert Drug here] can help fix that imbalance.” The public has accepted it, and an under-resourced psychiatric profession has helped to propagate it.

This theory started by accident in 1952 when a group of tubercular patients became euphoric when treated with the medication Iproniazid. It was established that this drug raised levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in the brain. Then in 1955, it was discovered that reserpine depleted the brain of 5-Hydroxytryptophan, a precursor in the biosynthesis of the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin, therefore decreasing levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in animal studies. The animal subjects showed signs of catatonic symptoms, such as inactivity and hunched over posture etc. Scientists concluded that depression was therefore a cause of chemical imbalance. [source]

However, this theory has never been proved in humans. Furthermore, it has not been demonstrated why common depression drugs do not alleviate depression almost immediately, since they create a maximum increase in serotonin and dopamine within two days. The fact is, most depressive patients do not have low levels of serotonin; some drugs that have nothing to do with serotonin or norepinephrine can alleviate depressive symptoms; stimulants that work on increasing dopamine and serotonin do not work for depression; some patients diagnosed with depressions actually have high extremely high levels of serotonin; and there is not one single peer reviewed article that can support claim of a neurotransmitter deficiency in any mental disorder.

The Fiction of ADHD and the ''Chemical Imbalance'' Theory of Mental Illness -

With regard to ADHD specifically, there are no scans used, nor X-rays nor any evidence of chemical imbalance. ADHD is “diagnosed” via a set of questions which are subjectively interpreted by a psychologist or psychiatrist in a brief consultation. Essentially, if your behavior matches the currently defined spectrum of symptoms, the doctor tells you that you have ADHD, and begins to treat you for a chemical imbalance in your brain.

But, if such an imbalance existed, how can you know that just by asking questions? Diagnosing ADHD really comes down to a matter of opinion, as there is no physical test in common usage that can pinpoint the condition.

Dr. Fred Baughman, a child neurologist with over 35 years of experience in the field, says that ADHD is a fraud crafted by drug companies and maintained by the child psychiatric industry. “Psychiatry has never validated ADHD as a biologic entity,” Dr. Baughman told PBS, “so their fraud and their misrepresentation is in saying to the parents of the patients in the office, saying to the public of the United States, that this and every other psychiatric diagnosis is, in fact, a brain disease.” [source]

Notably, recent developments in brain scan technology have actually served to disprove the chemical imbalance theory, as detailed in this article from the University of Cambridge: Imaging study shows dopamine dysfunction is not the main cause of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Professor Trevor Robbins, co-author of the study and Director of the BCNI [Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute], said: “These findings question the previously accepted view that major abnormalities in dopamine function are the main cause of ADHD…”

You can read the full study published in Brain: The Journal of Neurology.

Today, following intense pressure from critics of the chemical imbalance theory, psychiatry is finally retreating from its long-held position. For instance, Dr. Fred Baughman, board certified neurologist/child neurologist and author of the book The ADHD Fraud — How Psychiatry Makes “Patients” of Normal Children, has testified widely, including hearings at the US Food and Drug Administration (March 2006) and the Congress of Mexico (March 2006), that there is no proof that any psychiatric disorders have been scientifically validated.

However, the psychiatric establishment is slow to acknowledge these facts. As noted by retired psychologist Philip Hickey Ph.D in an article for Mad In America;

… instead of acknowledging that this notion was flawed, that they knew it was flawed, and that they promoted it for self-gain, they [the psychiatric profession] are claiming that they never really said it in the first place.”

The fact is that psychiatry, at both the organized and individual level, did promote, in characteristically dogmatic fashion, the notion that depression and other significant problems of thinking, feeling, and/or behaving are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, and are best treated by drugs and other somatic measures. Nor was this an innocent error. They promoted this fiction even though they knew that it was false, because it suited their purposes and the purposes of their pharmaceutical allies.

This falsehood was promoted vigorously by psychiatrists and by pharma, and tragically has been accepted as fact by two generations in western countries and increasingly in other parts of the world. [source]

However, according to widely published psychiatrist Ronald Pies MD, the chemical imbalance theory never existed:

I am not aware of any concerted effort by academic psychiatrists, psychiatric textbooks, or official psychiatric organizations to promote a simplistic chemical imbalance hypothesis of mental illness.

This is clearly untrue, and does not reflect the public opinion created by the psychiatric and medical establishments over the course of several decades. Despite the denial of the likes of Dr. Pies, countless statements have been published in family-oriented magazines – not peer reviewed journals – advising parents of the chemical imbalance theory:

  1. In the last decade, neuroscience and psychiatric research has begun to unlock the brain’s secrets. We now know that mental illnesses – such as depression or schizophrenia … [are] real diseases caused by abnormalities of brain structure and imbalances of chemicals in the brain. Unlocking the Brain’s Secrets, by Richard Harding, MD, then President of the APA, in Family Circle magazine, November 20, 2001, p 62.
  2. “More serious depression, or depression that is quickly getting worse, should be treated with medication. Antidepressants are not “uppers” and they have no effect on normal mood. They restore brain chemistry to normal.” About Depression in Women, by Nada L. Stotland, MD, Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Obstetrics/Gynecology, Rush Medical College Chicago, and subsequently President of the APA. Op.Cit., p 65.
  3. “ADHD often runs in families. Parents of ADHD youth often have ADHD themselves. The disorder is related to an inadequate supply of chemical messengers of the nerve cells in specific regions of the brain related to attention, activity, inhibitions, and mental operations.” Paying Attention to ADHD, by Timothy Wilens, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. Op. Cit., p 65

Now, as the profession begins to wise up to the failure of the chemical imbalance theory, it appears (as Philip Hickey noted) that “most of psychiatry’s so-called thought leaders are just letting this particularly shameful episode of their history die a natural death.”

And about damn time, too!

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