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Emil Kraepelin (1856-1926)

The German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin researched connections between brain biology and mental illness. He was a founder of psychopharmacology, the study of the effects of psychiatric drugs on the nervous system - Kraepelin called it ‘pharmacopsychology’. He also inspired the psychiatrists who in 1980 radically revised the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the foundation of today’s classification of mental illness.

Kraepelin was born in Mecklenburg in 1856 and was introduced to biology early. He studied medicine and experimental psychology in Leipzig. Later he adapted the techniques of early psychological laboratories, such as reaction-time measurements, and used them to study the effects of substances such as alcohol, morphine and coffee on the nervous system. He wrote his thesis on the relation between experimental psychology and psychiatry, and graduated with a medical degree in 1878. He spent his career teaching psychiatry and treating patients at universities and hospitals in Germany. In the early 1900s, Kraepelin rejected the theories of Sigmund Freud. He felt they focused too much on early sexual experiences and too little on biology. He also campaigned for the prohibition of alcohol and asylum reform.

Kraepelin’s most important innovation was examining and recording mental illness in a large number of patients over many years. He divided mental illness into two categories. The first was ‘manic-depressive psychosis’, which tended to recur at regular intervals. It is now called bipolar disorder. The second was ‘dementia praecox’ (premature dementia), which usually appeared in early adulthood and remained present throughout a person’s life. This is now called schizophrenia.

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Schizophrenia

A mental disorder that has symptoms of delusions, hallucinations and a loss of a sense of self and relationship to the external world that lasts over a long period of time (more than six months).