Brain scans and mental illness

Batul Chitalwala, Chief Editor

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For a long time, detecting mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, or even migraines could have only been done by a professional looking at symptoms and behavior. There were no laboratory tests to diagnose such brain problems. A new study shows that a brain scan called functional connectivity MRI, also known as fcMRI, can accurately detect differences in how individuals’ brains are wired. This could potentially lead to being able to use fcMRI to compare a healthy individual’s brain to one affected by a mental illness. 

Senior author of the Neuron article from which findings were published, Steven Petersen, PhD, is the James S. McDonnell Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in Neurology and a professor of neurosurgery, biomedical engineering, psychological and brain sciences, and radiology. He stated that fcMRI is “not measuring what you’re thinking, but how your brain is organized. That opens the door to an entire new field of clinical testing.”

Peterson, Gratton (postdoctoral researcher and first author), and colleagues analyzed data from a study conducted by the Midnight Scan Club at Washington University. With more than ten hours worth of fcMRI scans for each of the nine people, the researchers had plenty of information to work with. According to Science Daily, a science news website, “During the scans, each person performed tasks related to vision, memory, reading or motor skills, or rested quietly.”

Gratton, PhD, sorted through the data and created a functional connectivity map by dividing the brain into 333 parts and seeing patterns of correlation between certain parts. She came to the conclusion that an individual’s brain networks don’t change much from day to day and even with different mental tasks. She said, “Whether someone’s watching a movie or thinking about her breakfast or moving her hands makes only a small difference. You can still identify that individual by her brain networks with a glance.”

Despite the fcMRI scans showing consistent results, they have yet to be an ingrained tool at doctor’s offices, or used at all for that matter. Science Daily reported, “Progress has been stymied by confusion over whether the scans reflect fundamental, stable features of the brain, or if they change with every passing thought.”

Even in data from individuals that were extremely similar in terms of health and brain activity, the scans were able to pick up on differences. More research needs to be done though before scientists can know what is normal variation from a large-scale population, and thus learn to accurately pinpoint differences due to mental illnesses.