What Is Biological Psychiatry - And Can It Help?

Updated February 15, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Biological psychiatry is at once a new phenomenon and a view that has been present since ancient times. Certainly, among nearly all psychiatrists today, there is no questions that mental disorders may have some biological basis. So, what is it that sets biological psychiatry apart from any other branch of psychiatry? The answer primarily lies in its philosophy, its goals, and its approach to addressing mental health symptoms.

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How To Define Biological Psychiatry

The basis of biological psychiatry is the belief that mental health disorders are actually disorders of the brain itself. Further, they should be treated through an interdisciplinary approach featuring biological, psychological, and social interventions while also relying on scientific research.

Physical sciences that can contribute to biological psychiatry includes 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, psychotropic medications and other medical interventions may play a big role in biological psychiatry.

Tools For Biological Psychiatry

Biological psychiatry makes use of a variety of tools to create theories, conduct research, and diagnose mental illnesses.

The Use Of Math In Developing Theories

Would it surprise you to know that mathematical advances in theoretical physics have had a significant impact on the study of mental health disorders? As the use of 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 come up with theories in their field.

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

  • Learning

  • Emotions

  • Dopamine signaling

  • Information processing

The Use Of Health Records

Electronic health records are now being used to discover the biological bases of various mental conditions. Earlier, symptoms were identified by used of 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.

The Case-Control Method

Some biological psychiatry researchers are using what’s known as the case-control method 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 who without one. Its goal is generally to understand the natural differences between individual cases of mental health disorders as well as differences between those with and without a mental illness. 


As more resources that make studying genetics and how they can connect to our mental health become accessible, it’s likely that we’ll see an uptick in the number of studies that target this area. Biological psychiatry is one of many 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. Many studies use the functional MRI (fMRI) to watch the brain and correlate the brain function to the brain biology.

Research Domain Criteria

Since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) came out 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 disorders while also considering biological factors. The DSM-5 and other diagnostic tools will almost certainly continue to be important in the future. However, the Research Domain Criteria offers a view of mental health disorders that may be more compatible with biological psychiatry.

Biological Bases For Specific Mental Disorders

Breakthroughs in biological psychiatry research have already uncovered biological bases and factors for a wide range of mental disorders. With the new emphasis on healthy brain function, more research is likely to 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 (BPD)

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

Additionally, the occurrence of bipolar I was more likely in families who had schizophrenia. This has not been found true for bipolar II. So, while these two disorders are related in some way, they are likely more distinct than what was 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 will likely be important in not only discovering the causes of schizophrenia but also in devising medical treatments for it.


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 needs to be conducted to uncover which regions of the brain are involved in loss of happiness and pleasure.

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Psychotic Disorders

Biological psychiatry research promises 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 Mental Illness

One study found an interesting risk factor for a wide range of mental health disorders. The connectivity between visual centers of the brain and the centers used for complex thoughts was different in people with mental health disorders than when compared to those without. Knowing this may result in better prevention techniques for at-risk people.

How Can Biological Psychiatry Help?

Biological psychiatry has enormous potential to help people with mental disorders now and in the future. In several ways, this field can contribute to the health of individuals and the prevalence of mental health in society.


By delivering clues about the causes and risk factors of mental disorders, biological psychiatry research may open the door for more effective prevention techniques. As medical testing for mental disorders advances, it’s possible more people will be able to know they're at risk before they even have symptoms. This might give biological psychiatrists the opportunity to treat mild concerns before they become more significant.


Medications can be helpful for many people with mental health disorders, yet even now, treatment with psychiatric drugs is often subject to trial and error. As biological psychiatry progresses, finding the right medications for a specific person may become more approachable and more specific.

Treatment Plans

Although the advances in the medical aspects of biological psychiatry may be amazing, non-biological treatments will likely always have an important place in helping people with mental disorders. A skilled psychiatrist can create a treatment plan that combines both biological and psychological interventions to improve outcomes dramatically.

Is There Still A Place For Psychotherapy?

Of course, even with the increasing knowledge about the biological processes at work in mental disorders, psychology is likely still an essential factor. Changing thoughts and behaviors through therapy will probably continue to be an important part of treatment in the long term. So, psychotherapy may still have a prominent place in helping people address mental health concerns. If you’re in need of support or guidance, talking to a therapist can help you determine what kind of treatment you may benefit from.

It may be especially easy to seek help through resources like online therapy, which can allow you to find a professional who is suited to your needs and goals. By using the web to get the care you may need, you can start affordable online therapy when it works best for you and from wherever you want to do it.

No matter what your mental health concerns may be, it’s likely that online therapy can help you learn to manage them. In fact, one recent review of studies focused on online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found it could be significantly effective for treating depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Finding therapy that works for you may be the first step toward seeing serious improvements in your symptoms. 


While the concept of biology as a crucial factor in shaping mental illness isn't new, the field is currently expanding and developing at a phenomenal rate. It has the potential of increasing avenues for helping people who have mental health disorders, and it may even help other professionals learn how to consider the needs of those living with mental illnesses so they can receive the best care possible.

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