What Is Psychoneuroendocrinology?

Mary McMahon

Psychoneuroendocrinology is a medical field focusing on interactions between hormones and human behavior. Hormone fluctuations can cause psychiatric symptoms, and it is important to understand the mechanisms behind these symptoms when providing treatment and identifying patients who may be at increased risk of psychiatric disorders. Practitioners of psychoneuroendocrinology work in a variety of locations, including hospitals, research centers, and mental health facilities. Their experience may lie in psychiatry, psychology, neurology, or endocrinology, and the field is highly interdisciplinary in nature.

Post-partum depression is a psychoneuroendocrinology issue.
Post-partum depression is a psychoneuroendocrinology issue.

Hormones fluctuate throughout life, and part of psychoneuroendocrinology can include the study of healthy changes in hormone levels and the way these impact behavior as patients move through life. As most parents of teens have noted, for example, marked changes in behavior occur during the hormone spikes of puberty. Understanding the way hormones interact with the brains of healthy patients during normal development can provide important information for what happens when something goes wrong.

Some psychoneuroendocrinologists study the way hormones interact with the brain during puberty.
Some psychoneuroendocrinologists study the way hormones interact with the brain during puberty.

Patients can develop abnormal hormone levels as a result of systemic disease, cancers, or medications. Hormonal changes associated with pregnancy sometimes manifest in unusual ways, as seen in the development of post partum depression, a psychoneuroendocrinological disorder seen in some women who experience severe depression after giving birth. While many women experience some mental changes after giving birth and adjusting to a new baby, post partum depression is a medical issue because of its severity and the risks for the patient.

Doctors concerned with psychoneuroendocrinology can evaluate patients with psychiatric conditions to see if there is an endocrinological explanation. Their work can include finding out how to stabilize hormone levels to help the patient recover. This could require surgery to remove a tumor, adjustments to a patient's medications, or supportive care until a patient's hormones naturally return to normal. Researchers in this field can also study topics like extreme reactions to hormone medications, like the psychosis experienced by some patients who take steroids.

Careers in psychoneuroendocrinology usually require attending medical school, although some students may opt for a PhD if they are interested in pure research. Some schools offer an MD/PhD program, allowing students to earn these degrees concurrently. After medical school, doctors can pursue a residency, and advanced fellowships in psychoneuroendocrinology are available at some medical centers. These centers also provide research positions. Many practitioners are members of professional organizations, so they can have access to conferences, trade publications, and the latest research in the field.

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