Why is it So Difficult for Neuroscience to Help Psychiatry?


In The Psychologist, Jonathan Roiser of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London grapples with why it is that neuroscience has continued to have difficulties helping improve psychiatric treatments.

“Over the past 25 years the pace of progress in neuroscience research has been extraordinary, with advances in both understanding and technology,” writes Roiser. “We might expect that this would stimulate improved understanding and treatment of mental health problems, yet in general this has not been the case. In fact, our standard treatment approaches have barely changed in decades, and still fail many people suffering from mental distress. Why is there this disconnect between knowledge and application? And could we be on the brink of an exciting new era of cooperation between the two disciplines, increasing the effectiveness of existing treatments and even suggesting new ones?”

Roiser analyzes several underlying problems in realizing this vision, including a “disconnect” between neuroscience research and mental health practice that “partly reflects the unresolved ‘hard’ problem of consciousness: How does the brain generate experience?”

“Mapping between activity in neurons or circuits and subjective experience remains a huge conceptual, indeed philosophical, challenge,” comments Roiser. “Good science (including clinical science) requires reliable measurement, and neuroscience deals with what can be measured objectively at the level of the brain… By contrast, clinical characterisations of mental health problems, whether conceptualised as categorical disorders or lying on a spectrum, are based on symptoms that in many cases only exist subjectively. In other words, mental health practice takes subjective experience as its starting point – there is no objective test for low mood, worry or hallucination.”

What has neuroscience ever done for us? (The Psychologist, April 2015)


  1. Both inform my neurology practice. I do a lot of counseling of patients and families on an as needed basis, and find that my neurological and neuroscience knowledge promotes better and more accurate treatment for my patients.

    The problem with this article is that it fails to say that mind/brain/body interactions exist and that the problem of consciousness. There is a lot of research about conscious and unconscious interactions and behavior.

    The problem with many mental health professionals and workers is that their knowledge of the body, the brain and of medical information is at a barely literate level. I have observed this both as a clinician and as a professor.

    There are literally many thousands, if not far more, people who approach the mind as though it was independent of the brain and body. There is NO division. Whatever happens in the body, brain, and mind affects all kinds of factors in the three. Knowing about these details could only work to improve the treatment of the mentally ill, and of the non-medication solutions. Also, it helps guide how we actually function to produce behavior and abnormal behavior.

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    • It also ignores the problem of the social context for what is considered “abnormal behavior.” Psychiatry would make a great leap forward if it could start acknowledging that much of the suffering of the depressed and anxious folks out there is a result of living in a very depressing and anxiety-laden environment. The impulse to take every uncomfortable behavior and emotion and designate it as a “disorder” avoids dealing with the huge impact of the social context that both helps produce these behaviors and also judges them as being “abnormal” in the first place.

      —- Steve

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  2. Another ridiculous article on this equivalent to Fox news blog.

    Neuroscience has shown the significant contribution inflammation has to psychiatric disorders.In doing so it has allowed a rational for treating mood disorders with anti inflammatory agents, be they antidepressants, fish oil, music or meditation.

    Neuroscience has also helped clarify the underpinnings of behavioral genetics, and the effect of intimacy and rejection on the brain.

    Yet another misguided, and ill informed opinion piece.

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    • Really? Could you please refer us to literature about anti-inflammatory properties of SSRIs and how it contributes to brain disorders? Not to mention anti-inflamatory properties of music?
      If anything neuroscience can’t even explain the behaviour of an earth worm (which has circa 200 neurons and we know them all by name and how they connect to each other), so claims that it has “helped clarify the underpinnings of behavioral genetics” is ridiculous.

      Calling someone misguided and ill informed is not changing reality.

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