The term “biological model” is used in several different ways, but the meaning of the term is usually clear from the context. In one sense, it is a mathematical model of a biological system, while in another, it refers to a specific organism that may be studied extensively with the goal of generating data that can be applied to other organisms. This term is also used in reference to a particular theory about the origins of mental illness and psychological distress that originated in the 19th century as understanding of the brain advanced considerably.
In the sense of a mathematical model, a biological model can be constructed to gain a deeper understanding of an organism, an ecosystem, a genetic lineage, or a wide variety of other topics in biology. Using mathematics, people can set up and test a model. Many topics can be studied from within the framework of mathematics. For example, population growth and population dynamics are things which lend themselves very well to mathematical modeling.
Modeling biological systems with math also allows people to change the parameters and variables to see what would happen if alterations occurred in the real world. For example, a group of scientists working on an insect pest control project might take a mathematical model of the pests in question and then start adding variables like the use of insecticides, genetic manipulation of the population to create sterility, and other things to see which approach would likely be most effective when it comes to controlling the insects.
A model organism can provide data that may be applicable to other organisms. The lab rat is a classic symbol, studied with the goal of learning more about the nature of other mammals, especially humans. Fruit flies are also commonly used, as is Escherichia coli, a bacterium widely studied in labs all over the world. These biological models are chosen because of the similarities between them and other organisms, or for traits such as rapid reproduction or genomes that are easy to manipulate.
In the world of medicine, the biological model is a theory to explain how mental illness emerges, and to provide insight into potential treatments. People who support this model believe that psychological problems can be explained by physical and chemical problems within the brain and central nervous system, such as abnormal levels of neurotransmitters or abnormalities in brain structure. This would make psychological conditions treatable like other diseases.
This model was adopted in the 19th century, and it radically changed the approach to the treatment of the mentally ill. Historically, people with mental illness were blamed for their illness and assumed to be responsible for it; under this model, medical professionals recognized that their psychological issues were not their fault, and that they could be treated. This marked a radical shift from confinement, isolation, and abandonment in asylums and other facilities built to house the mentally ill.