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February 5, 1982

Endorphin-mental illness link far from proved

JAMA. 1982;247(5):570-577. doi:10.1001/jama.1982.03320300004002

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For several years psychiatrists and neuroscientists have explored a possible association between mental illness and an imbalance in the brain of natural morphine-like compounds. This approach is part of the trend toward searching for biochemical, rather than developmental, causes of mental illness.

A possible link between psychosis and dysfunction in a brain system that is affected by morphine was first advanced by psychoanalysts. Experimental support for this link came in the mid-1970s from demonstrations that morphine binds to receptors in many areas of the brain and that the brain itself produces substances that bind to these receptors. These substances, called "endorphins" (for "endogenous morphine"), have since been found in the nervous systems of all vertebrates examined, providing further evidence for the "endorphin-imbalance" theory of psychosis. Somewhat confusingly, however, there are data to support both an endorphin-excess and an endorphin-deficit basis for psychiatric symptoms.

At a recent symposium sponsored by the