UCT’s Professor Mark Solms has been awarded the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award, which is considered to be the pre-eminent research prize on the African continent.
Awardees are leading scholars with sustained records of outstanding research and intellectual achievement at the highest level. Twenty individuals have received the prize thus far, eight of whom have been from UCT. Solms is the first psychologist in their number.
The award includes a prize of R1.5 million. This will be used to finance the third phase of Solms’ ongoing research project, which looks at the interaction between the brain mechanisms and psychology of depression.
“My whole life’s work has been about refusing to dichotomise the mind and the brain. I think they’re two sides of the same coin,” said Solms.
“Our discipline is split like that. There’s psychotherapists and psychoanalysts on the one hand, and then there’s psychopharmacologists and psychiatrists on the other.”
This should not be an either/or scenario maintains Solms, who as a young neuropsychologist opted to train in psychoanalysis. This move would be like an astronomer turning to astrology, he explained.
“I was really frustrated by the lack of attention to the subtle complexities of the mind in neuropsychology. In fact, a friend of mine named Oliver Sacks – a famous neurologist – he said around that time: ‘Neuropsychology is admirable, but it excludes the psyche.’
“My whole life’s work has been about refusing to dichotomise the mind and the brain. I think they’re two sides of the same coin.”
“Psychoanalysis – which, with all of its faults, at least takes the mind seriously – it puts subjectivity centre stage, it tries to bring it into science.
“I’ve spent the rest of my scientific career actually working in both directions. Trying to bring psychoanalytical concepts into neuroscience, and trying to bring neuroscientific rigour into psychoanalysis.”
Solms’ current research lies between the pillars of neuroscience and psychoanalysis, and is being conducted in collaboration with colleagues in UCT’s Division of Human Genetics.
The psychiatric approach to depression is entirely molecular, Solms notes. Since the 1980s the main line of treatment has been through selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs, which have been disappointing in their efficacy.
As an affective neuroscientist, Solms understands the brain mechanisms of feelings: where, why and how certain feelings are generated in the brain.
“You look at serotonin, which is the chemical in [those drugs] and you think: ‘Why on earth do they think that will help?’ Because it’s really got nothing to do with the specific circuitry in the brain that has to do with the feelings that are involved in depression.”
The pattern of feelings that we call depression is the same pattern that manifests when we feel grief, Solms explained.
“It’s how people feel when they lose something that matters to them. That’s the psychology of depression: that there’s a certain kind of situation that makes us feel like that. It’s a situation in which you’re separated from or lose something you need. It’s like a withdrawal effect.”
This ability to form attachments is at the heart of our nature as mammals. When you separate a mammal from its attachment object, it will go through this particular process.
“The chemistry of that system, which is called the panic/grief system … is opioids.”
The natural opioids of the brain, called endorphins, decrease when a person is separated from an attachment object, and increase when they are reunited.
The psychology of feelings
Solms and his team wanted to prove that depression means something, and that these feelings have a psychology to them.
They began their study with 2 000 young adults, who were given a depression measurement. Both the top and the bottom scorers, and their parents, were interviewed about early separation experiences.
“Very seldom in this field – by which I mean psychiatry – do you see anything so black and white. It was quite extraordinary.
“Very seldom in this field – by which I mean psychiatry – do you see anything so black and white. It was quite extraordinary.”
“The young adults who were depressed – they had had appalling separation trauma in their childhoods. And the ones who were not depressed, didn’t.”
Separation distress is a major contributor to depression, Solms explained.
“Now, that’s really important, because it shows [that] depression has a psychology. It’s not that it doesn’t also have a chemistry … but that chemistry, that circuitry, only makes sense in relation to certain kinds of psychological situations.”
In the final stage of the study, the team will be examining the interactions between this early separation experience and genetic disposition. There are genes that are known to make you vulnerable to depression, and there are genes that are known to bestow resilience against depression.
“Our hypothesis is that people who have high separation distress loading in childhood, but who do not become depressed, probably have these resilience genes. And those who have low separation distress loading, but still do become depressed – they probably have the depression vulnerability genes.
“We are looking at that interaction between stressful experiences of a particular type, which have to do with separation and loss, and genes of a particular type, which have to do with resilience and vulnerability to depression.”
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