Psychiatrists urged to look beyond the ‘monoamine island’


Now that 2019 has passed us by, it is a time for reflection for most of us. We can think about the state of our important relationships, perhaps the growth of our children or other loved ones, the trajectory of our practices, and ideas for the future. Most commonly, I would wager, we likely think about how we might do things differently in the new year.

Dr. Munjal G. Shroff, board-certified in psychiatry in sleep medicine, with a practice in Smyrna, Ga. Courtesy Dr. Munjal G. Shroff

Dr. Munjal G. Shroff

Applying this lens to our chosen profession, the practice of clinical psychiatry, I hope 2020 brings real, or at least, incremental change. Our profession has evolved markedly over the last several decades, from psychoanalysis to the psychopharmacology revolution, to a now largely multimodal approach. Our treatment of psychiatric illness has evolved and, for the most part, improved the lives of millions across the country and around the world.

However, in so doing, we have, perhaps inadvertently, or maybe out of necessity, found ourselves on an allegorical island that we, as clinical, everyday psychiatrists defend to the death. Surrounded by an ocean of psychiatric disorders, illnesses, and symptomatology, we wave our prescription pads (or e-pads), like wands, hoping to calm the torrents of the psychiatric sea with yet another prescription. However, I’m not writing this to bemoan modern psychopharmacology, for it has saved and improved lives and led to a fruitful practice and livelihood for me and most of my colleagues. As the torrents of illness continue to flare around us, I’m not advocating that we put down our wands and become strictly therapists. What I am advocating for is the use of different wands, as it were.

Our chosen wand is undoubtedly largely composed of monoamine-based remedies – most involving the holy trinity of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. As we stand on our island, trying to quell hurricane-force winds, shark-infested waters, or a tidal wave, we wave the same wand – hoping that a dash of monoamine will slow down winds, scare away sharks, and reduce the destructive capacity of water.

We, more than those in any other medical profession, use the same basic treatments for heterogeneous disorders, whose true underlying physiology, despite important progress over the years, remains elusive and only partly understood. We see improvement and even resolution sometimes, but, for the most part, our treatments keep our patients going, so they can continue to sail, just avoiding being capsized by the psychiatric torrents beneath the surface. When the torrents flare, we wave the same wand again, hoping that another dash of monoamine modulation, this time, maybe in a new wrapper, or with a new name, will keep the ocean calm for a bit longer. Now, this has worked for decades to keep many ships from being capsized and our island still largely habitable, but this strategy is akin to building a shelter out of twigs and leaves and grasses, and never advancing to permanent construction techniques, and just replacing broken branches and leaves that will, undoubtedly, break again.

As we stand on our island, I say, we use the branches, leaves, and twigs to build a bridge to another island, and, there, we can make new wands.

In 2020, the materials for these new wands are readily available, but we have to be willing to trust these new wands, and yet not completely discard the old wands we have used for so long. These new wands are the nonmonoamine-based treatments, which have shown remarkable efficacy and safety in patients across the country and the world. We must accept that we, as a species, are remarkably complex creatures, and the disorders we try to treat have their origins in the most complex part of our being: the brain. Therefore, considering the complexity, it is only reasonable to think that there is more to our illnesses than modulating monoamines. We must think about other neurotransmitter systems, other areas of the brain, and about the downstream effects of our treatments to really get patients better.

In 2020, I challenge every day, clinical psychiatrists to embrace these new treatments and wave these new wands. As someone who has been fortunate enough to prescribe ketamine infusion and nasal sprays in the clinic, I can say we must gravitate toward these new treatments when clinically appropriate. While ketamine treatment is no panacea, its use, and the adoption of other nonmonoamine-based treatments, hopefully will fuel the development, use, and perhaps, most importantly, novel thinking about new biological treatment of psychiatric illness.

Dr. Shroff is board-certified in psychiatry in sleep medicine, and practices in Smyrna, Ga. He is a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

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