Neuroscientist to Speak Against Reliance on Drugs as Cure-All for Mental Illness

Friday, April 2, 2004 - 12:00

For immediate release
April 2, 2004

Elliot S. Valenstein to speak April 20 on
"Biochemical Theories of Mental Illness:
Should We Believe Them?"

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. - What causes mental disorders? American psychiatry has long sought the answer. Fifty years ago, the prevailing view was that a variety of disorders had their origins in early family experiences; treatment frequently involved years of work between therapist and patient to find the underlying causes.

Today, "it is widely believed by most authorities and the public alike that the cause (of mental disorders) is a chemical imbalance of the brain," writes Elliot S. Valenstein, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Prozac and lithium are prescribed to combat depression, for instance, because they are thought to counter the chemical imbalance blamed for the condition. "We have almost reached the point where there will be no limits to what people believe brain chemistry can explain," Valenstein writes in the introduction to Blaming the Brain: The Truth about Drugs and Mental Health (The Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 1998).

However, biochemical theories, for all their current popularity, "are an unproven hypothesis, and probably a false one," Valenstein argues. "I want to open up a dialogue about these issues." On Tuesday, April 20, Valenstein will visit Mount Holyoke to speak on "Biochemical Theories of Mental Illness: Should We Believe Them?" His talk is scheduled for 7:30 PM in the Morrisson Room of the Willits-Hallowell Center, and is free and open to the public. The occasion is the 2004 Hastorf Lecture, an annual talk by a distinguished speaker, sponsored by Albert and Barbara Hastorf. A reception will follow the lecture.

The Chronicle of Higher Education found Valenstein to be an "unlikely crusader" against prevailing biochemical theories. "When Mr. Valenstein began his new book three years ago, he planned to write a history of brain-chemistry theory, not a critique," Joshua Rolnick wrote in the Chronicle of December 4, 1998. "'I used to lecture to students and put together a reasonably coherent story,' he (Valenstein) says. 'I knew there were gaps, but this was an emerging science.' By the time he was halfway through writing the book, however, his skepticism had become unshakable. 'I began to feel that the evidence that didn't fit was becoming overwhelming.'"

Gail Hornstein, professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke and coordinator of this year's Hastorf Lecture, adds: "I have used Professor Valenstein's books in my classes for many years. Students take for granted the 'chemical imbalance' theory of mental illnesses as a result of being bombarded with advertisements from the drug companies who make billions of dollars on products that purport to 'correct' such imbalances. However, when students study Professor Valenstein's work, and see how limited the evidence is in support of any kind of biochemical basis for mental illness, they are astonished and angry at having been taken in by the drug companies' misleading claims. I'm delighted that Professor Valenstein has accepted our invitation to lecture at Mount Holyoke this spring, so that other students, faculty, and members of the local community have the opportunity to hear his careful critique."

Valenstein is professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience and former chair of the biopsychology program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of more than 140 scientific articles and six books on the physiological basis of emotion and motivation, hormones and behavior, and the history of biological treatments for mental illness. The recipient of many honors and awards, Valenstein has recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Behavioral Neuroscience from the International Society of Behavioral Neuroscience. He has participated in numerous public forums on ethical and social issues in science, including an appearance on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line," and has been invited to lecture on his research all over the world.

Valenstein's two best-known books are Great and Desperate Cures: The Rise and Decline of Psychosurgery and Other Radical Treatments for Mental Illness (1986) and Blaming the Brain (1998). He has been the recipient of many honors, including induction into the Academy of Science of Mexico, the Kenneth Craik Research Award from Cambridge University, England; an award for Outstanding Achievement in Psychology from The City University of New York; and an Award for Outstanding Achievement in Published Works; and he was selected to be the 1992-93 distinguished senior lecturer of the LSA College of the University of Michigan. He was elected to the Society for Experimental Psychologists and is a member (or fellow) of numerous professional and honorary societies, among them the International Brain Research Organization, the Society for Neuroscience, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, the International Behavioral Neuroscience Society, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Sigma, Sigma Xi, and Psi Chi.

Valenstein has served on scientific advisory panels for NIH, NIMH, NSF, the Wisconsin Primate Center, the James McKeen Cattell Foundation, the New York State Committee for Evaluating Doctoral Psychology Programs, the Fulbright Council for International Exchange of Scholars, Bowling Green State University's Neuroscience Center, and on the editorial boards of many professional journals.

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For more information, please contact Gail Hornstein, professor of psychology, at 413-538-2339 or ghornste@mtholyoke.edu