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Will Brain Scans Ever Diagnose Mental Disorders?


Author: Shernide Delva

Imagine if there were a scan that could diagnose mental disorders. Just by looking at your brain, doctors would be able to determine if you suffer from depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder. It sounds like it would be an incredibly useful tool to have in the medical field. Unfortunately, the science is not there yet. However, it could be coming soon.

Scientists already know that our brain goes through chemical biological changes when we are going through a mental illness. The biggest problem is we are all so different. Therefore, our brain activity varies. Two people with depression can have entirely different brain activities. While there could be some distinct similarities, it is not enough to determine for sure.

Depression is an example of how much variation there is. There are nine symptoms listed in the DSM-5, and a person has to have five of the symptoms to be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Just by understanding that alone, we know that two people could have the same diagnosis but suffer from completely different symptoms. Although there can be some overlaps, how the disorder is expressed varies.

Still, when it comes to mental illness, there are apparent changes in the brain that are recognizable. Scientists have started to discover which brain areas are affected. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) seems to involve excess activity in the amygdala which is an area of the brain involved in processing fear. There also appears to be little activity in certain parts of the frontal lobes.

“Brain imaging” is a process that involves various ways of looking at the brain. Technologies like PET imaging and functional MRS can measure the activity of the brain either at rest or while a person does certain tasks. A traditional MRI measures the brain’s structure—its size and shape.

There was an article back in 2005 that wanted to know if scientists could detect depression. Researchers divided brain scans into two sets and used software to identify the difference between clinical depression and a brain of a healthy person. The software was able to detect the differences perfectly.

Here’s the problem, the system only analyzed patients with clear symptoms of clinical depression. Only chronically ill patients with one signal diagnosis were used in the study. In the real world, people usually cope with a  long, confusing list of symptoms. Therefore, this form of testing would not be accurate for a wide range of people.

Another problem is that brain scans may not be able to detect early stages of a disease. The patients that have been tested in the 2005 study had been ill for an average of more than ten years.  Prevention is one of the healthiest methods of decreasing symptoms of mental illness so addressing these symptoms early is key.

Still, the idea of brain scans being used for diagnosis is an interesting one, and it seems like research is continuing to conduct that consider scans as n option. Perhaps if there is imaging that proves that these conditions do alter and change the brain, the stigma around getting help for these conditions would be decreased.

Regardless, conditions like PTSD and depression are major mental disorders that often are left unaddressed. Studies like this help the public understand that these are real conditions that should never be overlooked. If left untreated, often an addiction and unhealthy behaviors persist. If you are struggling with maintaining your mental health, or dealing with an addition,  call today. We are here to help.

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