By On September 4th, 2018

MRI’s may hold the key to better diagnosing people with depression and bipolar disorder

Source: Dr. Korgaonkar/University of Syndey

Diagnosing mental illnesses has always been notoriously difficult and with a high risk for misdiagnosis. After all, mental health professionals typically have to rely only on the subjective information from patients and surveys used to gauge symptoms as objectively as possible to form a diagnosis.

Complicating matters further is the fact that many mental illnesses share symptoms and often overlap, but do not respond to similar treatments. For example, while depression and bipolar disorder can often appear very similar, they require distinct courses of treatment.

Now, new research suggests brain scans could potentially help differentiate these two conditions and improve diagnostic accuracy for people living with bipolar disorder or depression.

According to a report published in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, advanced MRI scans can be used to identify a key difference in how the brains of people with depression and bipolar disorder process emotions. Specifically, the amygdala – a crucial set of neurons that help process emotions – reacts distinctly when processing facial expressions.

For those with bipolar disorder, the left side of the amygdala underperforms and is less connected to other regions of the brain compared to those with depression.

The researchers say the scans were 80% accurate in differentiating between individuals with bipolar disorder and depression.

While these results come from early tests, lead researcher Dr. Mayuresh Korgaonkar from the Westmead Institute of Medical Research and the University of Sydney in Australia is hopeful that the findings will help lead to more accurate diagnoses for people living with mental illness.

“Mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder and depression, can be difficult to diagnose as many conditions have similar symptoms,” Dr. Korgaonkar said. “These two illness are virtually identical except that in bipolar individuals also experience mania.

“This means distinguishing them can be difficult and presents a major clinical challenge as treatment varies considerably depending on the primary diagnosis.

“The wrong diagnosis can be dangerous, leading to poor social and economic outcomes for the patient as they undergo treatment for a completely different disorder.”

Some estimates suggest as much of 60% of people living with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed with depression. It can often take years or even decades for this to be corrected. Being able to differentiate the two conditions at the first point of contact could prevent significant complications for a person’s life and reduce negative impacts from their mental illness.

“Such a marker could help us better understand both these disorders, identify risk factors for developing these disorders, and potentially enable clear diagnosis from early onset,” concluded Dr. Korgaonkar.

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