Are Some Psychiatric Disorders a pH Problem? | Scientific American

 Neil Conway / Flickr

Neil Conway / Flickr

The human brain frequently undergoes changes in acidity, with spikes from time to time. One main cause of these temporary surges is carbon dioxide gas, which is constantly released as the brain breaks down sugar to generate energy. Yet the overall chemistry in a healthy brain remains relatively neutral because processes such as respiration—which expels carbon dioxide—help to maintain the status quo. As a result, fleeting acid-base fluctuations usually go unnoticed.

But a growing body of research suggests that for some people, even slight changes in this balance may be linked with panic disorder and other psychiatric conditions. Recent findings provide further evidence that such links are real—and suggest they may extend to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

There were earlier hints of the acid-disorder link: studies that directly measured pH—a metric of how acidic or basic something is—in dozens of postmortem human brains revealed lower pH (higher acidity) in patients with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Multiple studies in the past few decades have found that when people with panic disorder are exposed to air with a higher than normal concentration of carbon dioxide—which can combine with water in the body to form carbonic acid—they are more likely to experience panic attacks than healthy individuals are. Other research has revealed that the brains of people with panic disorder produce elevated levels of lactate, an acidic source of fuel that is constantly generated and consumed in the energy-hungry brain.

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