Biological Psychopathology
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Biological Psychopathology

Biological psychopathology is the study of the biological basis of mental illness. It attempts to elucidate the genetic and neurological etiology behind psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders.

Although it interacts with clinical psychology, it is a specialized subset that usually takes place in an experimental context. It is known by several alternative names, including clinical neuroscience and experimental psychopathology.

It is an interdisciplinary approach that comes from sciences such as neuroscience, psychopharmacology, biochemistry, genetics, and physiology, in order to examine the biological basis of behavior and specifically psychopathology. Biological psychopathology and other approaches relating to mental illness are not mutually exclusive, but many basically attempt to deal with the illness through different levels of explanation. Due to the focus on the biological processes of the nervous system, however, biological psychopathology has been particularly important in developing and prescribing drug based treatments for mental disorders. In practice, typically both medication and psychological therapy are used in synchronization to treat mental illness.

Biological psychopathology is specifically offered as a specialty in the PhD program at the University of Minnesota, in its high ranked psychology department.[1]


Biological psychopathology is a field that focuses mostly on the research and understanding the biological basis of major mental disorders such as bipolar and unipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. Much of the understanding thus far has come from neuroimaging techniques such as radiotracer positron emission tomography(PET), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, as well as genetic studies. Together, neuroimaging with multimodal PET/fMRI, and pharmacological investigations are revealing how the differences in behaviorally-relevant brain activations can arise from underlying variations in certain brain signaling pathways. Understanding the detailed interplay between neurotransmitters and the psychiatric drugs that affect them are key to the research within this field. Significant research includes investigations relevant to biological bases such as biochemical, genetic, physiological, neurological, and anatomical fields. In a clinical viewpoint, the etiology of these diseases takes into account various therapies, diet, drugs, potential environmental contaminants, exercise, and adverse effects of life stressors, all of which can cause noticeable biochemical changes.

Origins and basis

Sigmund Freud initially concentrated on the biological causes of mental illness and its relationship to evident behavioral factors. His belief in biological factors lead to the concept that certain drugs, such as cocaine, had an antidepressant functionality. In the 1950s the first modern antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs were developed: chlorpromazine (Thorazine), which was one of the first widely used antipsychotic medications to be developed, and iproniazid, which was one of the first antidepressants developed. The research on some of these drugs helped to formulate the monoamine and catecholamine theories, which alluded to the fact that chemical imbalances provide the basis for mental health disorders. New research points to the concept of neuronal plasticity, specifically mentioning that mental health disorders may involve a neurophysiological problem that inhibits neuronal plasticity.


This field expresses the importance of accurately identifying and diagnosing mental health disorders. If not accurately diagnosed, certain treatments could only worsen the previous condition. This can be difficult since there are numerous etiologies that could reveal symptoms of mental health disorders. Some important disorders to focus on are: seasonal affective disorder, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder.


  • Gleitman, H., Fridlund, A. J., & Reisberg, D. (2004).Psychology. (6 ed., pp. 642-715). New York, NY: W W Norton & Co Inc.
  • Hariri, A. R. (2009, November). Biological pathways to psychopathology. Retrieved from
  • Kalat, J. W. (2010). Biological psychology. (10 ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub Co.
  • Pennington, B. F., & Ozonoff, S. (2006). Executive functions and developmental psychopathology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry,37(1), 51-87.
  • Cicchetti, D., & Posner, M. I. (2005). Cognitive and affective neuroscience and developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 17, 569-575.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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