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Brain Imaging May Improve Outcomes for Those With Mental Disorders

Brain imaging may one day lead to better diagnoses and treatments for those struggling with mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, according to a new study from the University of Pennsylvania.

When diagnosing mental health disorders, clinicians currently rely heavily on the patient’s symptoms, which can be an entirely subjective practice. However, the symptoms that clinicians observe don’t always align with what researchers have learned about brain structure and function in people with psychiatric disorders.

If neurobiology and psychological symptoms are at odds, this calls into question whether the psychological symptoms should drive treatment.

“Researchers are becoming more aware that our traditional symptom-based diagnostic categories do not align with underlying neurobiology,” says Dr. Antonia Kaczkurkin, PhD, from the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition, part of the difficulty in treating depression and anxiety is that not all people respond to a given treatment. Identifying subtypes based on neurobiology rather than symptoms alone might lead to more targeted early intervention or more personalized treatment.

For the study, the researchers studied the brains of children and adolescents and found that youth can have similar symptoms but different neurobiological patterns. Kaczkurkin and Theodore Satterthwaite, MD, and their team used a type of machine learning called HYDRA to interpret information from the brain scans of more than 1,100 children and adolescents who had symptoms of depression and anxiety.

They focused on several variables: brain volume, thickness of the cortex (the outer layers of the brain), a particular type of brain connectivity (the magnitude of slow fluctuations in brain activity), white matter integrity (the organization of brain white matter tracts), participants’ performance on cognitive tests, and patterns of psychiatric symptoms.

Two main clinical subtypes of disorders emerged. The youth in the first subgroup had deficits in brain structure, brain function, and cognition, as well as more marked psychological symptoms than other participants in the study.

Participants in the second subtype still showed high levels of clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety but didn’t have the same deficits in brain structure, brain function, and cognition.

“These results suggest that there may be distinct underlying neurobiological signatures of these common symptoms despite similar clinical presentations,” said Kaczkurkin.

The study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Source: American College of Neuropsychopharmacology

Brain Imaging May Improve Outcomes for Those With Mental Disorders

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Brain Imaging May Improve Outcomes for Those With Mental Disorders. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Jan 2020 (Originally: 24 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Jan 2020
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