Schizophrenia, a disease marked by distorted thinking, hallucinations and reduced ability to feel normal emotions, has long been associated with heredity. Recently, some researchers have come close to pinpointing the gene responsible for a susceptibility to the disease — and have come up with a theory that comes close to validating the work of one of the great thinkers who came to the fore in the 1960s — R.D. Laing.
In a series of books, lectures and films, psychiatrist Laing rejected the disease model of mental illness and expressed open hostility to exclusively genetic or organic explanations of mental disorder. Laing did not argue that schizophrenia was in no way biological; rather he postulated that the behavior of schizophrenics -— he preferred the term “madness “— could be understood as a defensive “strategy that a person invents in order to live in an unlivable situation.” It was a fitting model of “madness” at a time when the world at large seemed to be an “unlivable situation.”
After several best selling books — “The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness,” “The Politics of Experience” and “Self and Others,” Laing fell out of favor in the 1980s.
According to one recent study, the key to schizophrenia may be found in a gene region thought to play a role in inflammation and autoimmune disorders. If confirmed, the finding could lead to a test and possibly new treatments for the mental disorder that affects about 1% of the world’s population. Of 500,000 genetic variants studied, researchers zeroed in on a gene near the tip of both the X and Y chromosomes. The variant was located near genes that produce receptors for two cytokines, which are involved in the body’s response to infection and may play a role in the brain’s response to “injury.”
Another research study reported that a team of scientists had identified what they are calling “a major new gene” associated with schizophrenia. “The gene that we have been studying is a type of dopamine receptor gene. One version of this gene results in an overabundance of a specific type of brain receptor, called the D2 dopamine receptor,” the study said. “This overabundance has previously been identified as an important underlying feature of schizophrenia.”
The study went on to say that while genetics play an important role in the development of schizophrenia, it was also important to minimize exposure to environmental factors known to trigger schizophrenia in people in this genetic subgroup: stress and substance abuse among them.
So, in a sense, it could be postulated that schizophrenia is a defense mechanism, triggered by external or internal threats (the brain’s response to psychological injury) just like, to simplify matters, Laing postulated.
Laing, who died of a heart attack while playing tennis in the South of France in 1989 at the age of 61, would be pleased.
Society for Langian Studies
R.D. Laing Wikipedia entry
Review of “The Wing of Madness: The Life and Work of R. D. Laing”
The International R.D. Laing Institute
Janus Head: Special Issue: The Legacy of R. D. Laing