There's a paradox at the heart of modern psychiatry, according to an important new paper by Dr Charles E. Dean, Psychopharmacology: A house divided.
It's a long and slightly rambling article, but Dean's central point is pretty simple. The medical/biological model of psychiatry assumes that there are such things as psychiatric diseases. Something biological goes wrong, presumably in the brain, and this causes certain symptoms. Different pathologies cause different symptoms - in other words, there is specificity in the relationship between brain dysfunction and mental illness.
Psychiatric diagnosis rests on this assumption. If and only if we can use a given patient's symptoms to infer what kind of underlying illness they have (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression), diagnosis makes sense. This is why we have DSM-IV which consists of a long list of disorders, and the symptoms they cause. Soon we'll have DSM-V.
The medical model has been criticized and defended at great length, but Dean doesn't do either. He simply notes that modern psychiatry has in practice mostly abandoned the medical model, and the irony is, it's done this because of medicines.
If there are distinct psychiatric disorders, there ought to be drugs that treat them specifically. So if depression is a brain disease, say, and schizophrenia is another, there ought to be drugs that only work on depression, and have no effect on schizophrenia (or even make it worse.) And vice versa.
But, increasingly, psychiatric drugs are being prescribed for multiple different disorders. Antidepressants are used in depression, but also all kinds of anxiety disorders (panic, social anxiety, general anxiety), obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, and more. Antipsychotics are also used in mania and hypomania, in kids with behaviour problems, and increasingly in depression, leading some to complain that the term "antipsychotics" is misleading. And so on.
So, Dean argues, in clinical practice, psychiatrists don't respect the medical model - yet that model is their theoretical justification for using psychiatric drugs in the first place.
He looks in detail at one particularly curious case: the use of atypical antipsychotics in depression. Atypicals, like quetiapine (Seroquel) and olanzapine (Zyprexa), were originally developed to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic states. They are reasonably effective, though most of them are no more so than older "typical" antipsychotics.
Recently, atypicals have become very popular for other indications, most of all mood disorders: mania and depression. Their use in mania is perhaps not so surprising, because severe mania has much in common with psychosis. Their use in depression, however, throws up many paradoxes (above and beyond how one drug could treat both mania and its exact opposite, depression.)
Antipsychotics block dopamine D2 receptors. Psychosis is generally considered to be a disorder of "too much dopamine", so that makes sense. The dopamine hypothesis of psychosis and antipsychotic action is 50 years old, and still the best explanation going.
But depression is widely considered to involve too little dopamine, and there is lots of evidence that almost all antidepressants (indirectly) increase dopamine release. Wouldn't that mean that antidepressants could cause psychosis (they don't?). And why, Dean asks, would atypicals, that block dopamine, help treat depression?
Maybe it's because they also act on other systems? On top of being D2 antagonists, atypicals are also serotonin 5HT2A/C receptor blockers. Long-term use of antidepressants reduces 5HT2 levels, and some antidepressants are also 5HT2 antagonists, so this fits. However, it creates a paradox for the many people who believe that 5HT2 antagonism is important for the antipsychotic effect of atypicals as well - if that were true, antidepressants should be antipsychotics as well (they're not.) And so on.
There may be perfectly sensible answers. Maybe atypicals treat depression by some mechanism that we don't understand yet, a mechanism which is not inconsistent with their also treating psychosis. The point is that there are many such questions standing in need of answers, yet psychopharmacologists almost never address them. Dean concludes:
it seems increasingly obvious that clinicians are actually operating from a dimensional paradigm, and not from the classic paradigm based on specificity of disease or drug... the disjunction between those paradigms and our approach to treatment needs to be recognized and investigated... Bench scientists need to be more familiar with current clinical studies, and stop using outmoded clinical research as a basis for drawing conclusions about the relevance of neurochemical processes to drug efficacy. Bench and clinical scientists need to fully address the question of whether the molecular/cellular/anatomical findings, even if interesting and novel, have anything to do with clinical outcome.
Dean CE (2010). Psychopharmacology: A house divided. Progress in neuro-psychopharmacology & biological psychiatry PMID: 20828593