Mental Illness and BrainHQ

A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. Or all three. Mental illnesses cause the person distress and difficulty in everyday functioning. Some are mild and can affect a large proportion of us whereas others are rare but much more severe.

This lesson looks at mental ill health through a neurological lens and uses all we have learned about the brain so far in this course.

Types of mental illnesses

There are many different types of mental illness, each with their own symptoms and treatment. Six common mental illnesses are described below.

Mental illness​ and the brain

Andrew Weil

Neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument.

Such practice changes the activity and physical aspects of specific brain areas.

Brain health for mental health

Scientists are learning more about the role of neurotransmitters and brain health in diagnosing and treating mental illness. We currently treat mental illness with talk therapy and/or drugs.

Based on the work and findings of Professor Merzenich and his colleagues, the traditional methods that we are using to address the current mental health crises impacting the developed are financially and morally insupportable and, in many cases, these extants could be replaced or supported by a brain health approach powered by technology.

Note that this transition from crisis management to wellbeing is a shift from the domain of medicine to the domain of brain fitness and managed neurological health. The approach we describe is not medical and is not intended to replace the role of doctors or psychologists. The aim is is to help people to become neurological stronger and sustain their mental fitness in ways that improve other aspects of their lives.

Brain screening can be accomplished in a scalable and inexpensive way because our it is the only organ that can actually directly inform us about its own organic function. 

Targeted assessments of the brain’s functional performance using a smartphone or computer can inform us about the general status of their brain health.

A mountain of studies has shown us how specific brain performance indices relate to the physical and functional status of a person’s brain.

These studies also document strong correlations between those assessment outcomes and other dimensions of organic brain health such as the status of the brain’s vascular support, the integrity of the ‘blood-brain barrier’, and the powers of the brain’s immune response etc.

Neurological weaknesses indicate possible progression to serious mental health struggles unless suitable action is taken. This has parallels with high blood pressure leading to heart attacks and stroke.

If addressed earlier enough in childhood, this neurological intervention could prevent the roots of mental illness from establishing themselves. Therefore, the role of schools is important and including annual brain health assessments should form a key part of this approach.

Both environmentally induced and strongly inherited mental health disorders are within scope

Brains of even inherited illnesses can be strengthened in ways that can ameliorate symptomatology to substantially improve neurological performance abilities, and that should often weaken the expressions of the disorder on the path to preventing their otherwise-full-blown expressions.

We now know that brains that operate with high accuracy at fast processing speed are organically healthy because:

  1. The brain must be physically and functionally advanced to account for fast, accurate operations
  2. A fast brain is necessarily operating with a high level of moment-by-moment correlation supported by fast excitatory and inhibitory processes generated by strongly coordinated local networks and brain systems
  3. That strong local coordination and associated progressive myelination manifested by SOP is crucial for engaging the higher-level brain systems to generate an emergent ‘executive’, and elaborate its agency and control in the brain
  4. That strong local coordination engendering that executive is also a prerequisite for stable and reliable—controlled—neurological operations
  5. They must be well-supported by the brain’s ‘neurovascular unit’ and  immune system
  6. They are communicating with the physical body more effectively in ways that positively contribute to overall health

Fast, accurate, stable, controlled brains are organically healthy.

Slow, inaccurate, unstable and impulsive brains are unhealthy.

Brain processing speed, along with accuracy and reliability, is relatively easily improved by appropriate forms of brain engagement and exercise. 

The physical, chemical and functional changes in brain machinery responsible for improvements in processing speed generalise to all operations performed by the brain.

This includes the development of a strong sense of self agency and executive control.

Medical scientists have now documented the neurological anomalies that mark virtually every commonly occurring form of mental illness. Those studies provide us with a roadmap for generating profiles that signal a probable progression to particular mental illnesses.

MDD example  + For example, the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin is lower in individuals who have depression. Scientists also believe that there may be disruptions in the neurotransmitters dopamine, glutamate, and norepinephrine in individuals who have schizophrenia.

SZ Example + When someone is affected by depression, their brain typically has high levels of a chemical called cortisol, which isn’t a neurotransmitter because the hormone, is made in the adrenal glands rather than the brain.

In every case of mental illness, we know at least many of the neurological weaknesses and distortions that mark emergent disease and ‘can (with high likelihood) see them coming’ in the brain of many children. 

Most of these weaknesses and distortions can be at least partially addressed by appropriate intensive emotional or neurocognitive brain training. Once corrected, impacts of these non-medical intervention have been demonstrated to be long enduring and self-sustaining. This is very different to the extant approaches currently used. 


During times of physical and mental stress, excessive levels of cortisol is produced with some of it ending up in the brain, changing its chemistry and triggering symptoms of depression.

Antidepressant medicines help to reduce these symptoms by balancing the amount of cortisol with neurotransmitters in the brain. These include drugs called selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are thought to work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain.

Manifesto for Change

The following ideas could form the basis of a new way to approach mental health at a population level. This manifesto for change is grounded in neurology and can provide early and effective support to the current behavioural and pharmaceutical treatments used.
Dr John Rubenstein

Professor Merzenich’s work has revolutionised the way we view the brain’s plasticity and his latest work in mental disorders illustrates his sincere dedication to alleviate human suffering.

Dr John Rubenstein


Professor in Child Psychiatry