The idea may seem preposterous. But the authors of a new study weren’t laughing when they announced they had identified signs of schizophrenia in babies only a few weeks old.
A group of researchers led by John H. Gilmore, MD used ultrasound and MRI to look for brain abnormalities in 26 babies born to mothers with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, along with 26 babies in a “healthy” control group.
Gilmore said the high-risk babies had abnormally large brains, with larger ventricles (fluid-filled spaces in the brain). The differences only showed up in male babies, but Gilmore said that was characteristic of schizophrenia as well, explaining that the illness is more frequent and severe in men.
A Twist of Logic
In other words, when the girls in the high-risk group showed no brain differences at all, Gilmore managed to link the non-results to the illness he was looking for.
And the boys? Gilmore’s press releases do not mention how many male babies actually had brain differences, simply saying that enlargement was present “overall.” At this writing, the full article was only available to paid subscribers to the American Journal of Psychiatry, and the abstract omits exact numbers.
Gilmore, however, was confident enough to envision a brave new world of infant psychiatry. The study, he said, “allows us to start thinking about how we can identify kids at risk for schizophrenia very early and whether there are things that we can do very early on to lessen the risk.”
Milk, Cookies, and Prozac
Is Gilmore talking about drugging babies before they’re a month old? Gilmore doesn’t say that – not quite. He edges quite close, however, with his hopeful assertion that this line of research “will help us target interventions.”
In fact, drugging babies is not that far-fetched, considered along with psychiatry’s progression over the last few decades. Investigative journalist Robert Whitaker, in his groundbreaking new book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” traces a path that has led to medicating children on a grand scale.
Whitaker notes that drugging children with psychiatric medications is a relatively new phenomenon. “Mental illness” in children and teenagers was almost unheard of until 1980, when attention-deficit disorder appeared in the DSM-III. Psychiatrists acknowledge that diagnosis mostly followed teacher complaints, not medical evaluations, but doctors were happy to offer Ritalin to fidgety kids. Today, says Whitaker, around 3.5 million U.S. children take stimulants for ADHD – at last count, one in every 23 kids aged 4-17 were taking the drugs.
More Diagnoses, More Drugs
As evidence mounted that the drugs did more harm than good, psychiatrists identified more and more childhood mental illnesses requiring more and more medications. When Prozac emerged as the newest “wonder drug,” kids got SSRIs. By 2002, according to Whitaker, one in 40 kids was on an antidepressant. Drug companies spun efficacy gold from studies made of straw, while keeping the risks quiet. Children taking the drugs paid a price in physical and mental side effects.
The march of psychiatric progress did not falter, however, as doctors came up with another diagnosis that was “exploding” among kids: bipolar disorder. For many kids, who were already taking stimulants or SSRIs, symptoms of mania emerged as a result of their previous psychiatric treatment.
This, of course, required more psychiatric treatment. And the treatment, Whitaker says, involved even more powerful medications, with even greater risks and side effects. Soon, kids were taking antipsychotics and anticonvulsants before they entered grade school. Predictably, many of these kids began experiencing the side effects of these powerful drugs, such as sedation, massive weight gain, and permanent movement disorders.
History suggests, then, when Gilmore hints that medicating babies may be in the near future, we may do well not to laugh.
And history gives one of Gilmore’s remarks an ominous note.
“This is just the very beginning,” he said.
See Robert Whitaker live! Join Portland Hearing Voices for a special benefit lecture:
Thursday, August 19, 7:30 p.m.
Powell’s City of Books Downtown
1005 W. Burnside
For more information: Portland Hearing Voices