Pioneering Study Demonstrates Benefit of Imaging Technique in Identifying Mental Illness

MRI may be an effective way to diagnose mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, according to experts from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In a landmark study using advanced techniques, the researchers were able to correctly distinguish bipolar patients from healthy individuals based on their brain scans alone.

Currently, most mental illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms only, creating an urgent need for new approaches to diagnosis. In bipolar disorder, there may be a significant delay in diagnosis due to the complex clinical presentation of the illness. In this study, Dr. Sophia Frangou (Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, USA) teamed up with Dr. Andy Simmons (Kings College London, UK) and Dr. Janaina Mourao-Miranda (University College London, UK), to explore whether brain imaging could help correctly identify patients with bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder affects patients’ ability to regulate their emotions successfully, which puts them at great disadvantage in their lives. The situation is made worse by unacceptably long delays, sometimes of up to 10 years, in making the correct diagnosis. Bipolar disorder may be easily misdiagnosed for other disorders, such as depression or schizophrenia. This is why bipolar disorder ranks among the top ten disorders causing significant disability worldwide.

The current study used MRI to scan the brains of people with bipolar disorder and of healthy individuals. Using advanced computational models, people with bipolar disorder were classified correctly with 73 percent accuracy using brain imaging scans alone. These findings were replicated in a separate group of patients and healthy individuals with 72 percent accuracy rate. This level of accuracy is comparable to that of many other tests used in medicine. Additionally, brain scanning is very acceptable to patients as most people consider it a routine diagnostic test.

This approach does not undermine the importance of rigorous clinical assessment and the importance of building relationships with patients but provides biological justification for the type of diagnosis made. Diagnostic imaging for psychiatry is still under investigation and not ready for widespread use. Nonetheless, these results together with those from other labs are a harbinger of a major shift in the way we approach diagnosis in psychiatry.

The full paper “Examination of the predictive value of structural magnetic resonance scans in bipolar disorder: a pattern classification approach”  can be read here.

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