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Organic Mental Disorder (Organic Brain Syndrome)

What is Organic Mental Disorder?

When we speak about mental illness, most of us assume that biological, genetic, or environmental factors can affect the functioning of the brain and cause different types of mental illnesses.

However, some physical diseases or medical conditions like brain injury, neurological impairment, surgery, extreme physical or mental trauma can also affect the functioning of the brain.

Organic mental disorder or organic brain syndrome is not a disease; rather, it is a term used to refer to any of the conditions caused due to the gradual decrease in the functioning of the brain.

The brain cells could be damaged due to a physical injury (a severe blow to the head, stroke, chemical and toxic exposures, organic brain disease, substance abuse, etc.) or due to psycho-social factors like severe deprivation, physical or mental abuse, and severe psychological trauma. A person affected with this condition may be able to think, remember, comprehend and learn, but the person's judgment may be so poor that continual supervision is required. Left unattended, the symptoms may worsen causing more problems.

Organic mental disorders can be temporary and acute (delirium), or permanent and chronic (dementia). 

What causes organic mental disorders?

There are several factors that could lead to organic mental disorder.

Physical or medical conditions that cause organic mental disorder:

Brain injury due to trauma

  • Bleeding within the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage)

  • Bleeding into the space around the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage)

  • Blood clot inside the skull causing pressure on brain (subdural hematoma)

  • Concussion

Breathing conditions

  • Low oxygen in the body

  • High carbon dioxide levels in the body

Cardiovascular conditions

  • Stroke

  • Dementia due to many strokes

  • Heart infections

  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

Degenerative disorders

  • Alzheimer's disease

  • Dementia

  • Huntington disease

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Parkinson's disease

Other conditions

  • Organic amnesic syndrome: A syndrome that causes prominent impairment of recent and remote memory while immediate recall is preserved. The ability to learn new things slows down with time.

  • Delirium: An acute but temporary organic cerebral syndrome that affects consciousness, attention, perception, thinking, memory, behavior, and sleep-wake schedule.

  • Personality and behavioral disorders due to brain disease, damage or dysfunction.

What are the symptoms of organic mental disorder?

Symptoms depend on the part of the brain that is affected and the condition that caused this disorder. A common set of symptoms include:

  • Memory loss: The person may forget (not be able to identify?) family and friends.

  • Confusion: They may be confused and may not be able to recognize where they are or what is happening

  • Difficulty in understanding conversations

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Inability to focus or concentrate

  • Short-term memory loss (there may be temporary amnesia)

  • Difficulty in performing routine tasks

  • Difficulty in controlling voluntary muscle movements

  • Visual disturbance

  • Poor judgment

  • May have problems in balancing oneself (walking, standing)

  • Occasionally, the person may show extreme rage or have paranoid ideas 

How are organic mental disorders diagnosed?

Some of the symptoms may be similar to the ones that occur in any mental illness. Hence the mental health expert needs to conduct several tests and examinations to make the correct diagnosis.

Some of the tests include:

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to check for brain damage

  • Positron Emission Tomography (PET) to find damaged areas in the brain

  • Cerebrospinal fluid markers to look for signs of infection, such as bacterial meningitis

Getting treatment for organic mental disorder

Treatment depends on the severity of injury or type of disease that causes this condition. Temporary organic mental health disorders such as concussion may only require rest and medication. Many of the conditions are treated mainly with rehabilitation and supportive care.

Treatments for improving independence include physical therapy (to aid in walking) and occupational therapy (to help relearn daily tasks).