Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hagop Akiskal's Theory of Practically Everything

I've been running a number of pieces on Hagop Akiskal lately, based on a talk he gave recently to DBSA San Diego. The pieces touched lightly on Dr Akiskal's highly original observations on the interaction between mood and temperament. Below is the heavy-duty complex version, pulled from a 2006 article on mcmanweb

Please don't feel you need to comprehend the piece. My intention, rather, is to give you an appreciation for a deep thinker's insights into the complexities of human behavior ...

Do fear and anger underpin practically every mood and personality state? What kind of crazy question is that?

Hagop Akiskal MD of the University of California at San Diego thinks he may have an answer. Dr Akiskal is no fan of the DSM approach of separating out psychiatric phenomena into neat diagnostic parcels. The dynamics of mood and temperament, and their interactions, are far too messy for that, especially when they involve mixed depressions that behave suspiciously like bipolar disorder.

In two online advance articles from The Journal of Affective Disorders in 2006, with Brazilian collaborator Diogo Lara MD as one of his co-authors, Dr Akiskal has proposed what can best be described as a "fear-anger dysregulation hypothesis."

Dr Akiskal broadly divides personality into four temperaments, including hyperthymic, cyclothymic, depressive, and anxious, each conferring certain adaptive advantages. Hyperthymics are the leaders, energetic and upbeat. Cyclothymics are the creative romantics. Depressives tend to be subservient (someone has to take orders and do the grunt work), while anxious types lean toward altruism. These traits are distributed along a continuum ranging in degree from normal and supernormal to the sturm and drang of mood disorders.

This is where Drs Akiskal and Lara drop their bombshell. In the first of their two articles, the authors advance the notion that "basic mood states, both normal and pathological, can be conceived mostly as a function of transiently dysregulated or accentuated fear and anger traits." Moreover, they submit that "their combinations and various permutations can predict all major mood profiles, both pathological and healthy."

Whoa! Fear and anger for ALL of mood, healthy and otherwise? Is this the new E=MC2 of psychiatry?

"Fear is the path of the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." Is it really that simple? Is cutting edge psychiatry nothing more than a remedial attempt to catch up to Master Yoda?

Okay, let's assume that Dr Akiskal has not seen too many Star Wars movies. First, let's clear up what Dr Akiskal means by anger, which is not necessarily what you encountered as a kid when you tracked mud over your mom's freshly-waxed kitchen floor. When high anger is coupled with low fear, we are talking about the "sunny side," characterized by pleasure seeking and grandiosity. But add more fear to the mix and we arrive at anger's more familiar "dark side."

Oops, maybe Dr Akiskal has watched too much Star Wars, after all.

Earlier mood spectrum models call for thinking linearly, in one dimension. Now, Dr Akiskal asks us to think bi-dimensionally.

Thinking Inside the Box

Drs Akiskal and Lara ask you to imagine a square tipped on one corner, sort of like a diamond-shaped compass.

The "north" pole is "hyperthymic," bracketed by low fear and high anger. The "south" pole, "depression," is bracketed by low anger and high fear. Now add a west-east axis and you get something like this:

Say the authors: "Since cyclothymic and hyperthymic temperaments predispose to bipolar disorder, high anger would be the distinguishing feature of bipolar spectrum disorders." In bipolar disorder, fear modulates the anger. The authors contend that their model also applies to behavioral characteristics that are not disorders, such as entrepreneurship and leadership in hyperthymic individuals. The model does not cover schizophrenia, schizoaffective, and schizoid personality disorder, nor pervasive developmental disorder.

Thinking Inside the Box - Part II

The authors have thoughtfully provided an additional tilted square. Depressive stays the same, but this time "euphoric" occupies the opposite pole, while "dysphoric" becomes labile's opposite. Plus some additional blanks (simplified here) are filled in, as such:

Various manic and hypomanic states (with short-lived depressions) occupy the top part of the square just below euphoric (M,H,d). Working down from euphoric to dysphoric, pure mania gives way to mixed states and cycling (mx, cy). Working the other way from euphoric to labile, mania gives way to attention deficit/hyperactivity and atypical depression (.ad/h, AD)

Down at the bottom we have depression (D) and dysthymia (dys) which merges into labile features working one way up the square and dysphoric the other way. Everything starts to quiet down as we approach euthymic from any direction.

As you can see, according to Drs Akiskal and Lara, not all depressions and manias are alike. Different types feed off differing degrees of fear and anger, typically high of one and low of the other, but often a mix of both. In their article, the authors add that atypical depression involves a "transient downregulation of anger traits," while cycling involves both high fear and high anger, "as one pulls up and the other pulls down."

More to come ...


Smitty said...

Mighty meaty piece there, John. I'll have to read in depth at my leisure. A little late EST time.

In the meantime I have a few questions. One. I would welcome a chance to interview you in the future. How might I arrange that?

Two. I have long had the opinion that all so-called mental illnesses have the same common source: some kind of childhood or developmental malaise. We are each so unique in our responses to neurological trauma. it is my sense that the symptoms are unique to our individual body and energy type. Where one person might have a psychotic disturbance (and my simplified view of psychoses is that most involve major sleep loss as a variable); others end up shutting down, as in depression (which I see as healing response gone awry, largely because we don't know how to truly handle depression in a healing way). Someone else may just respond to negative stimuli with anxiety and fear, and that becomes a chronic holding pattern when a person is not finding the tools needd in order to face the thoughts or the real biochemical source of their symptoms. In short I see that all these these we call mental illness, somehow tell us more about a person's emotional/biophysiological coping reponses... than they tell us about what medicine will truly be most effective. ~ My humble opinion at this time, which I am continually attempting to put words to.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Smitty. You can contact me at themcman @

You're spot on with your observations. I was initially blown away when I first started looking into the brain science 7 or 8 years ago. All the brain science people were talking about how gene-environment interactions influence how we respond to what life throws our way. Plus the trauma and developmental stuff.

Funny thing, the brain science validates a lot of the Freudian stuff about maladaptive reactions. Eric Kandel got it right when he talks of a new science of the mind.