The Nervous System
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe the symptoms, potential causes, and treatment of several examples of nervous system disorders
A nervous system that functions correctly is a fantastically complex, well-oiled machine—synapses fire appropriately, muscles move when needed, memories are formed and stored, and emotions are well regulated. Unfortunately, each year millions of people in the United States deal with some sort of nervous system disorder. While scientists have discovered potential causes of many of these diseases, and viable treatments for some, ongoing research seeks to find ways to better prevent and treat all of these disorders.
Neurodegenerative disorders are illnesses characterized by a loss of nervous system functioning that are usually caused by neuronal death. These diseases generally worsen over time as more and more neurons die. The symptoms of a particular neurodegenerative disease are related to where in the nervous system the death of neurons occurs. Spinocerebellar ataxia, for example, leads to neuronal death in the cerebellum. The death of these neurons causes problems in balance and walking. Neurodegenerative disorders include Huntington’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia disorders, and Parkinson’s disease. Here, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease will be discussed in more depth.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly. In 2012, an estimated 5.4 million Americans suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and payments for their care are estimated at 300 billion. There are several types of mental disorders including schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among others. The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), which describes the symptoms required for a patient to be diagnosed with a particular mental disorder. Each newly released version of the DSM contains different symptoms and classifications as scientists learn more about these disorders, their causes, and how they relate to each other. A more detailed discussion of two mental illnesses—schizophrenia and major depression—is given below.
Schizophrenia is a serious and often debilitating mental illness affecting one percent of people in the United States. Symptoms of the disease include the inability to differentiate between reality and imagination, inappropriate and unregulated emotional responses, difficulty thinking, and problems with social situations. People with schizophrenia can suffer from hallucinations and hear voices; they may also suffer from delusions. Patients also have so-called “negative” symptoms like a flattened emotional state, loss of pleasure, and loss of basic drives. Many schizophrenic patients are diagnosed in their late adolescence or early 20s. The development of schizophrenia is thought to involve malfunctioning dopaminergic neurons and may also involve problems with glutamate signaling. Treatment for the disease usually requires antipsychotic medications that work by blocking dopamine receptors and decreasing dopamine neurotransmission in the brain. This decrease in dopamine can cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms in some patients. While some classes of antipsychotics can be quite effective at treating the disease, they are not a cure, and most patients must remain medicated for the rest of their lives.
Major depression affects approximately 6.7 percent of the adults in the United States each year and is one of the most common mental disorders. To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, a person must have experienced a severely depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks along with other symptoms including a loss of enjoyment in activities that were previously enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep schedules, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts. The exact causes of major depression are unknown and likely include both genetic and environmental risk factors. Some research supports the “classic monoamine hypothesis,” which suggests that depression is caused by a decrease in norepinephrine and serotonin neurotransmission. One argument against this hypothesis is the fact that some antidepressant medications cause an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin release within a few hours of beginning treatment—but clinical results of these medications are not seen until weeks later. This has led to alternative hypotheses: for example, dopamine may also be decreased in depressed patients, or it may actually be an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin that causes the disease, and antidepressants force a feedback loop that decreases this release. Treatments for depression include psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, deep-brain stimulation, and prescription medications. There are several classes of antidepressant medications that work through different mechanisms. For example, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) block the enzyme that degrades many neurotransmitters (including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine), resulting in increased neurotransmitter in the synaptic cleft. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) block the reuptake of serotonin into the presynaptic neuron. This blockage results in an increase in serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Other types of drugs such as norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors and norepinephrine-serotonin reuptake inhibitors are also used to treat depression.
Other Neurological Disorders
There are several other neurological disorders that cannot be easily placed in the above categories. These include chronic pain conditions, cancers of the nervous system, epilepsy disorders, and stroke. Epilepsy and stroke are discussed below.
Estimates suggest that up to three percent of people in the United States will be diagnosed with epilepsy in their lifetime. While there are several different types of epilepsy, all are characterized by recurrent seizures. Epilepsy itself can be a symptom of a brain injury, disease, or other illness. For example, people who have intellectual disability or ASD can experience seizures, presumably because the developmental wiring malfunctions that caused their disorders also put them at risk for epilepsy. For many patients, however, the cause of their epilepsy is never identified and is likely to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Often, seizures can be controlled with anticonvulsant medications. However, for very severe cases, patients may undergo brain surgery to remove the brain area where seizures originate.
A stroke results when blood fails to reach a portion of the brain for a long enough time to cause damage. Without the oxygen supplied by blood flow, neurons in this brain region die. This neuronal death can cause many different symptoms—depending on the brain area affected— including headache, muscle weakness or paralysis, speech disturbances, sensory problems, memory loss, and confusion. Stroke is often caused by blood clots and can also be caused by the bursting of a weak blood vessel. Strokes are extremely common and are the third most common cause of death in the United States. On average one person experiences a stroke every 40 seconds in the United States. Approximately 75 percent of strokes occur in people older than 65. Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and a family history of stroke. Smoking doubles the risk of stroke. Because a stroke is a medical emergency, patients with symptoms of a stroke should immediately go to the emergency room, where they can receive drugs that will dissolve any clot that may have formed. These drugs will not work if the stroke was caused by a burst blood vessel or if the stroke occurred more than three hours before arriving at the hospital. Treatment following a stroke can include blood pressure medication (to prevent future strokes) and (sometimes intense) physical therapy.
Some general themes emerge from the sampling of nervous system disorders presented above. The causes for most disorders are not fully understood—at least not for all patients—and likely involve a combination of nature (genetic mutations that become risk factors) and nurture (emotional trauma, stress, hazardous chemical exposure). Because the causes have yet to be fully determined, treatment options are often lacking and only address symptoms.
Parkinson’s disease is a caused by the degeneration of neurons that release ________.
________ medications are often used to treat patients with ADHD.
Strokes are often caused by ________.
- blood clots or burst blood vessels
What are the main symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include disruptive memory loss, confusion about time or place, difficulties planning or executing tasks, poor judgment, and personality changes.
What are possible treatments for patients with major depression?
Possible treatments for patients with major depression include psychotherapy and prescription medications. MAO inhibitor drugs inhibit the breakdown of certain neurotransmitters (including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine) in the synaptic cleft. SSRI medications inhibit the reuptake of serotonin into the presynaptic neuron.
- Alzheimer’s disease
- neurodegenerative disorder characterized by problems with memory and thinking
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulty maintaining attention and controlling impulses
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication abilities
- neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures
- major depression
- mental illness characterized by prolonged periods of sadness
- neurodegenerative disorder
- nervous system disorder characterized by the progressive loss of neurological functioning, usually caused by neuron death
- Parkinson’s disease
- neurodegenerative disorder that affects the control of movement
- mental disorder characterized by the inability to accurately perceive reality; patients often have difficulty thinking clearly and can suffer from delusions