What Is Biological Psychiatry, And Can It Help?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Biological psychiatry is both a modern phenomenon and a view that has existed for many years. In the present, psychiatrists know that many mental illnesses have a biological component. However, there are a few differences between regular and biological psychiatry, lying in this specialty's philosophy, goals, and approach to addressing mental health symptoms. To understand psychiatry, it can be essential to understand these differences.

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What is biological psychiatry? 

Biological psychiatry posits that mental illnesses are brain disorders that should be treated through an interdisciplinary approach featuring biological, psychological, and social interventions while relying on scientific research. Physical sciences that can contribute to biological psychiatry include psychiatric neuroscience, psychopharmacology, biochemistry, physiology, and genealogy. 

Biological psychiatry emphasizes the connection between brain functions and behaviors. The goal is to prove that physical factors can cause mental health disorders. As a result, for those who practice biological psychiatry, psychotropic medications and other medical interventions may play a significant role in treating mental illness.

Tools for biological psychiatry

Biological psychiatry uses various tools to inspire theories, conduct research, and diagnose mental illnesses, including the following. 


Mathematical advances in theoretical physics have significantly impacted the study of mental health disorders. As using findings to compute various effects and develop theories based on those results becomes more ingrained in the scientific community, many biological psychiatrists are moving towards using math to develop theories in their field.

Computational models have already been used to develop theories related to:

  • Learning

  • Emotions

  • Dopamine signaling

  • Information processing

Health records

Electronic health records are used to discover the biological bases of various mental conditions. Earlier, symptoms were identified using doctors' notes in electronic records. However, more recently, scientists have developed ways of finding sets of symptoms and the dimensions of the symptoms to present a more comprehensive view of the patient's situation automatically. 

The case-control method

Some biological psychiatry researchers use case-control to study the link between mental health and biological factors. This method compares the case files of a person with a mental health disorder with a person without one. Its goal is to understand the natural differences between individual cases of mental health disorders and the differences between those with and without a mental illness. 


As more resources that make studying genetics and how they can connect to mental health become available, there may be an uptick in the number of studies that target this area. Biological psychiatry is one of the fields that may pursue research of this sort, particularly due to its focus on how the structure and function of the brain can influence symptoms.

Advanced neuroimaging technology

As medical testing advances, new ways of assessing brain changes and viewing brain function are becoming available. Some studies use functional MRI (fMRI) to watch the brain and correlate the brain function to brain biology. Neuroimaging can help researchers continue to make connections between an individual’s changing mental state and fluctuating activity levels in specific regions of the brain. 

Research domain criteria

Since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was released by the American Psychiatric Association in 1952, psychiatrists have referred to it and its subsequent editions when diagnosing mental disorders. More recently, the National Institute of Mental Health has begun to develop the Research Domain Criteria.

This research framework is designed to help researchers explore mental illnesses while considering biological factors. The DSM-5 and other diagnostic tools are often essential to the mental health field. However, the Research Domain Criteria publication offers a view of mental health disorders that may be more compatible with biological psychiatry.


Biological bases for specific mental health disorders

Breakthroughs in biological psychiatry research have uncovered biological bases for a wide range of mental disorders. With the new emphasis on healthy brain function, more research may follow the same trends. Below are some of the most significant discoveries that have come about in recent decades related to the connection between biology and mental health.

Bipolar disorder 

Research on the bases of bipolar I disorder and bipolar II disorder, two individual subsets of bipolar disorder, has indicated that bipolar II disorder is not a milder form of bipolar I disorder, as it was initially argued. Instead, those with bipolar I disorder and bipolar II disorder were found to have different genetic makeups. While the genetic factors that may lead to each disorder are similar, the overlap of the genetic code is partial.

Additionally, the occurrence of bipolar I disorder was more likely in families who had schizophrenia. This factor has not been found true for bipolar II disorder. While these two disorders are related, they are more distinct than initially assumed.


In a recent study, researchers found that the gene groups associated with schizophrenia can cause specific changes in the brain. If these genes are altered, the neurons behave differently. This biological factor may be essential in discovering the causes of schizophrenia and devising medical treatments for it.


A new study conducted at the University of Warwick, UK, used neuroimaging to discover links between changes in the brain's reward and memory systems and depression. Further research must be conducted to uncover which brain regions are involved in losing happiness and pleasure.

Psychotic disorders

Biological psychiatry research offers new possibilities for diagnosing psychotic disorders more accurately. Along with improved diagnostics may come more effective treatments as well. In one study, 700 patients with symptoms of psychosis were assessed using medical testing, including MRI and tests requiring participants to respond to sensory cues. The results showed more accuracy than the DSM. With more research, there is hope that medical testing may be used along with the reports of symptoms now used for more precise diagnosis.

General risk for psychiatric disorders

One study found a biological risk factor for various mental health disorders. The connectivity between the visual centers of the brain and the centers used for complex thoughts was different in people with mental health disorders than those without. This research may inspire new prevention techniques for at-risk individuals.

How can biological psychiatry help?

Biological psychiatry can potentially help people with mental illness now and in the future. Below are a few benefits of a biological approach to mental health treatment. 


By delivering clues about the causes and risk factors of mental health conditions, biological psychiatry research may open the door to more effective prevention techniques. As medical testing for mental illness advances, more people may be able to know they're at risk before symptoms appear, which might allow biological psychiatrists to treat mild concerns before they become serious. 

Finding an effective medication 

Medications are often used to treat symptoms of mental illness. However, treatment with psychiatric drugs is often subject to trial and error. As biological psychiatry progresses, finding the proper medications for a specific person may become more approachable and specific. In some cases, advancements in this area have already been made, with some healthcare professionals being able to offer a genetic test to see which medications may be most effective for an individual. 

Treatment planning 

In clinical contexts, biological psychiatry can help mental health professionals accurately measure the efficacy of various treatment modalities. Although advances in the medical aspects of biological psychiatry may support medical treatments, non-biological treatments can also have a vital place in supporting those with a mental illness. A skilled psychiatrist can create a treatment plan that combines biological and psychological interventions to improve outcomes dramatically.

Learning from biological psychiatry research

In recent decades, details from an increasingly large number of studies have helped researchers better understand the biological bases for the treatment, causes, and symptoms of mental disorders. For example, biological psychiatry research from the past few years has provided insights into how mindfulness meditation works to reduce symptoms of certain mental disorders. Researchers in a study published in Biological Psychiatry—one of the most highly cited journals, according to details published by Clarivate Analytics—found that increases in awareness and decreases in rumination produced by mindfulness training were associated with decreased salience network connectivity

Biological Psychiatry is a rapid-publication journal that, along with its companion titles, provides a valid account of the work currently being done to advance this area of study. On its website, the journal’s publisher, the Society of Biological Psychiatry, reiterates the importance of the field by stating, “The Society's purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, and behavior”. 

If you’d like to learn more about recent biological psychiatry studies, consider browsing through Google Scholar or a similar research specialist. Try to ensure the studies you’re reading are published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals, such as the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the American Journal of Psychiatry, or the above-mentioned Biological Psychiatry. 

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Navigating a mental health disorder with online therapy

Despite the increasing knowledge about the biological processes of mental disorders, psychology is an essential factor in mental health. Coping with thoughts and behaviors through therapy may continue to be a core part of treatment in the long term. If you're seeking support or guidance, talking to a therapist can help you determine what treatment you might benefit from. In addition, you don't need a mental illness to receive support. 

If you face barriers to in-person therapy, such as a lack of insurance, low income, or difficult-to-reach options in your area, online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be an effective way to receive support. By using the web for therapy, you can get matched with a therapist specializing in your unique concerns. In addition, you can choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your provider.  

A recent review of studies focused on online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) found it could be significantly effective in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health conditions. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.


While the concept of biology as a factor in mental illness isn't new, the field is expanding and developing quickly. Biological psychiatry can potentially increase avenues of support for those with a mental illness. If you want to understand more about mental health and current treatment practices, consider contacting a licensed provider for further guidance and support.
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