Brain Scans could become EKG’s for Mental Disorders

29 Jun


If EKGs can detect potential problems in heart function, then doctors are asking why brain scans can’t be used in the same way, to identify disorders like depression, autism or schizophrenia.

Doctors have long relied on electrocardiograms (EKGs) to track the electrical activity of the heart, and find any potential aberrations in the normal pattern of blips and valleys that could indicate distress. It’s not invasive, not that expensive, and for the patient, only involves getting hooked up to a few leads with patches on the chest.

Now researchers say that a similarly patient-friendly technique could scour brain activity for signs of trouble. The idea is to look for any changes in the normal ‘resting state’ of multiple brain regions recorded by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines. And so far, promising evidence suggests that it may be possible to detect when communication between these regions is out of sync, or otherwise different from the norm. Even more encouraging, say scientists, various mental disorders, such as depression and autism, may involve different aberrant patterns of activity, providing a type of visual fingerprint for the condition. Finding such signatures could not only lead to better diagnosis of certain neurological or developmental diseases but also track how well patients respond to treatment.

And—just as with a standard EKG test—all the patient has to do is lie still. “With resting state fMRI they just have to hold still for eight minutes in the scanner,” says Dr. Michael Greicius, medical director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders. “That’s the main practical advantage.”

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