by Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

The biology of the brain can be altered in people with mental health conditions. This information is excerpted from the 8-week Family-to-Family course developed by NAMI National that NAMI Spokane regularly presents. In the course, participants gain insight into how to help their loved ones manage a mental health condition.

Research presented in the 8-week course has shown that mental health conditions can result in physical changes within the brain. The type and amount of neurotransmitters present in the synapse between the neurons directly impact the way messages are sent and received. The way the messages are sent and received influences how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Four major neurotransmitters are believed to be involved in most mental health conditions: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and gamino-butyric acid or GABA. Symptoms result when there is either too little or too much of these neurotransmitters in the synapses, or when they are not absorbed properly.

The technology used to scan activity in the brain has shown that certain areas physically look different in some people when mental health conditions are present.

There can be abnormally higher blood flow and glucose metabolism in the amygdala, the center for emotionally charged memories, in some people with depressive disorder or bipolar disorder. This results in exaggerated emotions and moodiness.

In anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder, brain scans have shown the amygdala, which is also the brain’s fear center, can be over-activated and the prefrontal cortex’s control of the amygdala is weakened.

Scans indicate the people with schizophrenia produce abnormal brain waves, particularly in the temporo-limbic region, interfering with the ability to process information because the brain can’t tone down external sounds or screen out unwanted noise. This is referred to as impaired gating.

Studies show that the ability to screen out background noise improves right after smoking, which explains why people with schizophrenia have three times the smoking rate of the general population.

Scans have also shown that young adults diagnosed with schizophrenia experience a shrinking of the gray matter – a loss of as much as 10 percent beginning in the parietal lobe and then throughout the brain over a few years. People with the most tissue loss experience the worst symptoms including depression, hallucinations, delusions, and disturbing or psychotic thoughts.

These are just a few examples to show that mental health conditions can result in physical changes within the brain. Even though the brain in a loved one may be altered, the Family-to-Family Course discusses ways to help the loved one learn to live well with a mental illness. The free 8-week Course is designed to help individuals support an adult with a mental health condition while maintaining their own well-being.

NAMI Family-to-Family is taught by NAMI-trained family members who have been there and includes presentations, discussions, and interactive exercises. It is a designated evidence-based program, which means that research shows that Family-to-Family significantly improves the coping and problem-solving abilities of the people closest to a person with a mental health condition.

To find out when the next Family-to-Family Course will be presented, email NAMI Spokane to get class notifications of programs at


Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.