Debunking myths about chemical imbalances in the brain
09/29/2020 // Virgilio Marin // Views

Most people think that a chemical imbalance is among the primary causes of mental disorders. This occurs when a person has too much – or even too little – of certain neurotransmitters, or chemical messengers that transmit information between neurons. Some examples of neurotransmitters include dopamine and serotonin, both of which play an important role in vital cognitive processes, including the regulation of mood and emotions.

But not all mental disorders develop due to a chemical imbalance, especially since other factors come into play. There are still many things that mental health specialists don’t know about the pathogenesis of a mental disorder.

Chemical imbalance is a myth, at best

Scientists have not proven that a chemical imbalance is the initial and sole cause of mental disorders. While cases exist of people with mental disorders who have a chemical imbalance, it’s still unclear how it emerges, or even how it fully impacts a person’s mental health. To note, other factors that affect mental health include:

  • Genetics and family history
  • Taking certain drugs
  • Traumatic life experiences, such as a history of physical and psychological abuse
  • Having a history of alcohol or illegal substance abuse
  • Psychosocial factors, such as external circumstances that trigger feelings of isolation and loneliness

To diagnose these conditions, physicians rely on a person’s symptoms, as well as findings from a physical examination – both of which do not provide accurate results.

It’s worth noting that mainstream medicine suggests these diseases are linked to a chemical imbalance.


Anxiety disorder

A person with anxiety disorders typically experiences persistent, sudden and irrational anxiety.

Based on studies, this condition is linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain. In particular, researchers found a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) to have an important role in anxiety disorders. GABA was found to decrease neuronal activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for generating emotional responses.

Other neurotransmitters that contribute to anxiety disorders include serotonin and oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter released during social bonding and is commonly referred to as the “cuddle hormone.”

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder is characterized by extreme mood shifts. Those with bipolar disorder typically alternate between episodes of mania and depression, which may last anywhere from a few days to a few years.

A manic episode is characterized by a state of abnormally high energy. People going through a manic episode may exhibit the following characteristics.

  • Feeling euphoric
  • Having unusually high levels of energy
  • Participating in several activities at once and leaving tasks unfinished
  • Talking extremely fast
  • Highly irritable
  • Frequently coming into conflict with others
  • Engaging in risky behavior, such as gambling or drinking too much alcohol
  • Predisposed to physical injuries

It’s still unclear what causes bipolar disorder. A study argues that changes in the dopamine receptors alter dopamine levels, which may contribute to the symptoms of the condition. Meanwhile, experts posit that bipolar disorder is caused by a combination of factors, including genetic predisposition and a different brain structure and function.


Depression is a mood disorder that ranges in severity. The more severe cases are grouped under clinical depression.

The symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, pessimism or apathy
  • Loss of interest in formerly enjoyable activities
  • Difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering things
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness or hyperactivity
  • Insomnia, or in some cases, sleeping too much
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Physical aches, cramps or digestive problems
  • Thoughts of suicide

Some studies link depression to reduced levels of serotonin and dopamine, as well as norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in a person’s fight or flight response.

However, several experts said that certain chemical changes, such as abnormal norepinephrine levels, do not affect everyone. Moreover, medications targeting neurotransmitters do not work as fast as expected if depression is caused solely by a chemical imbalance. (Related: Is nutritional psychiatry the future of mental health treatments?)

Further research is needed to verify the role of chemical imbalances in mental illness. While some people exhibit striking chemical changes in the brain, not everyone develops a mental disorder under the same set of circumstances. Therefore, other factors have to be explored. has more on the factors contributing to mental disorders.

Sources include:

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