Psychological Illnesses Diagnosed Via Brain Scan

Believe it or not, there really is a difference between healthy brains and “mentally ill” brains. Unfortunately, it’s also true that some medications are over-prescribed, and some illnesses are over-diagnosed.

A new study has revealed that MRI scans can be used to diagnose mental disorders like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, ADHD, and Tourettes, using a machine learning algorithm.

There is only a 1 in 10 million chance that the results of the study would occur by chance.

The study was the result of a collaboration between the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Columbia University, and Yale University.

The results suggest that, at some point in the future, you will be able to get an objective diagnosis for a mental illness from a brain scan, rather than relying on the subjective preconceptions that you or your therapist may have. It is closer to basing diagnosis on how the brain works, rather than a list of symptoms chosen by committee.

Previous attempts to diagnose mental disorders by brain scan were less successful because they focused in on single parts of the brain. Ravi Bansal and the team suggested that we should be approaching the subject more like fingerprint identification. Fingerprints aren’t identified by individual lines, but by patterns.

The scans, and the algorithm used to compare them, looked at patterns in the shape of the brain. The results were remarkably consistent.

The differences between people who had been previously diagnosed as having a disorder or being healthy were staggering. The probability that we would see these results by chance is only one in ten million.

The algorithm accurately diagnosed people with the correct disorder between 89 and 100 percent of the time. There was one exception for people who had been diagnosed with a mild risk of depression, in which case the algorithm diagnosed them correctly 74 percent of the time. This would be expected, of course, since these people were already low risk.

What is perhaps more interesting about this technology is that it allows us to identify mental illness based on brain scans, even though we don’t know exactly how these mental illnesses work. The fact that the algorithm requires an analysis of patterns throughout the entire brain certainly lends credibility to the idea that mental illness is a whole brain phenomenon in most circumstances, not an issue related to single parts of the brain.

In any case, it’s increasingly clear that mental illness is in fact a disorder of the brain. We can’t rule out the possibility that “emotional trauma” and environment play a part, but the result is indisputably an effect of the brain itself, not just “the mind.”

In addition to diagnosis, this technology offers a promising lens into understanding how these diseases work in the first place. Scientists still know remarkably little about how the brain works, and how it can go wrong. By measuring the differences in brain structure between people with various disorders, we may come to understand ourselves in ways that weren’t possible before.


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  • http://google k stokes

    My husband has had many concussions.
    He is suffering with bi polar.
    We think he is over medicated.
    Switched from medicine to medicine.
    How could he get this scan?

    thank you

  • TheO

    This is diagnosis done in reverse. In other words, bad science; bad medicine.

    A “mental disorder” has been, is, and always will be subjective. Now they are trying to connect an objective marker to a subjective diagnosis.

    No other field does this. A cardiologist runs a blood test. A diabetic checks his insulin and blood-glucose levels. A cancerous growth can be viewed and removed.

    A psychological problem is subjectively experienced and diagnosed. Whatever a brain imaging scan may show, you have to demonstrate and explain why it is pathological. Period. At this point is it a physical disease, such as Alzheimer’s.

    They’ve already tried this pseudo-science with genetics and neurotransmitters, and failed. Now they’re just trying from a different angle to come up with an explanation AFTER THE FACT and AFTER the medication has been prescribed for decades!

    Stop embarrassing yourself, guys.

  • TheO


    This still does not justify drugs (which started out as a search for treating unrelated diseases) being used to treat mental illnesses (“diseases”) of unknown origin. Again. Backwards diagnosis.

    Sure, look for the predictive markers with whatever means possible (brain scans, genetics, hormones, et al, if such will ever emerge), but do so BEFORE you start prescribing drugs; not AFTER.

    This doesn’t even take into account the dangerous side-effects of such drugs, and even more importantly, the withdrawal symptoms. People, who may have only suffered temporarily, are now chronically ill and have EXTREME difficulty coming off their medications because of the withdrawal symptoms. (I know of one personally.)

    Imagine walking into a cardiologist’s office, and instead of doing any specific blood tests (where the readings are directly tied to a disease or risk), he instead asks you a series of questions from a checklist. “Do you ever feel a tightness in your chest? Do you ever feel fatigued during the day? Do you feel any numbness in your extremities?” And so on. After checking off all that apply, he then prescribes you a medication! I doubt you would ever revisit that doctor. Oh, but he assures you that eventually sometime in the future they’ll figure out why the medication seems to work for some people, and how the symptoms (from the checklist) originate in the first place. Eventually…