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Using Brain Scans, Researchers Say They Can Diagnose Disorders More Precisely

A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry used brain scans to measure blood flow to parts of the brain associated with emotion regulation to gauge if the subjects had unipolar depression or bipolar disorder.

The study hoped to identify brain function markers that identified the two types of depression.

The study used 44 Pittsburgh-area women and was conducted by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Kings College London, the University of South Florida and the University of Texas Southwestern.

Phillips said the study used women because the disorders are more prevalent in females.

Researchers were able to identify with 81 percent accuracy which women were depressed and which had bipolar disorder. The computer algorithms diagnosed four women as having bipolar disorder even though their clinical diagnosis was depression.

Researchers originally thought it was an inaccuracy or a computer blip. But when researchers followed up a year later, “Two of those people who had actually appeared to be misclassified as having bipolar disorder actually had gone on to develop bipolar disorder,” said Mary Phillips, a professor of psychiatry and clinical and translational science at the University of Pittsburgh, who worked on the study.

Bipolar disorder, characterized by mood swings that range from depression to irritability, is often misdiagnosed as clinical or unipolar depression.

Researchers say one in five patients with bipolar disorder is correctly diagnosed, and an accurate diagnosis can take up to 10 years. In part, that is because psychiatric disorders are primarily diagnosed by talk therapy and self-disclosure.

This technology could change that.

Phillips said traditional methods of neuroimaging group people together based on their diagnosis, while this looked at individual people.

Other ongoing studies will look at brain scans of children and adolescents who are at risk for developing depression or bipolar disorder.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health. 

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
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