Diagnosing Mental Illness Through Neuroimaging Scans

Diagnosing a mental illness isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be a subjective process that allows one clinician to see one disease, while another sees a different disease and a third sees nothing at all, even when all three medical practitioners are looking at the same patient. This kind of uncertainty can be annoying, but it can also lead to very serious problems, as some might not get the right diagnosis or the right treatment for a very real mental health issue.

In a perfect world, a person with symptoms of a mental illness could get a simple test that would definitively diagnose the problem or prove that no problem really exists. Some believe that neuroimaging scans provide this opportunity, but others aren’t so sure that the scans can ever take the place of the tried-and-true methods that are currently in use.

Families might not be asked to provide input on this issue at all, but understanding the nature of the tests experts might propose can allow families to make good choices about the care a loved one might receive.

Older Methods

When a person has behaviors that seem unusual to outsiders, they may land in the offices of mental health professionals. Here, experts may ask a series of questions regarding:

  • The length of time in which the behavior has taken place
  • The thoughts the person might have
  • The impulses the person might struggle to control
  • The person’s overall health

Blood tests and other physical examinations might play a role, but experts typically focus on the answers to interview questions in order to make a firm diagnosis of mental illness. By comparing the person’s responses to guidelines published by medical experts, doctors can make a reasonable guess about what’s happening inside the head of the person who needs help.

Unfortunately, this process can be a little imprecise. Some people don’t describe their symptoms in ways that mesh with the textbooks experts use, while others may not be willing to provide the open and honest answers that could result in a proper diagnosis. In addition, some mental illnesses have symptoms that overlap, even though the treatments for those illnesses can be quite different.

People who have mental illnesses may know this all too well, as they may struggle for years in order to get a proper treatment. Those who have bipolar disorder, for example, may wait 13 years to get the right diagnosis, according to The Guardian, and 71 percent of these people report that their symptoms worsened due to the delay. This isn’t a minor problem, and it’s hoped that brain scans can help.

Good Choices

Although neuroimaging scans may not provide all the answers when it comes to appropriately diagnosing a mental illness, it’s reasonable for some families to include the technology in their treatment plans, as they may get answers from a scan that could elude them with other forms of care. For example, people who have brain injuries may not know of their physical ailments unless they get a scan, and that could be vital for their healing. In a study of the issue, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, researchers found that 52.3 percent of patients saw their treatment plans modified after a scan, and 22.9 percent had those changes because brain trauma that had been previously undetected was found in the scan.

Results like this seem to suggest that scans should have a place in the diagnosing process for almost anyone, even if they’re only used in order to rule out some kind of underlying injury or physical illness. These problems can really take their toll on the way someone behaves and feels, and they often can’t be amended with talk therapy alone. A scan could make the issues come to light, and that could make proper therapy all the easier to provide.

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Scans for mental illness might also be beneficial for some people, as long as they’re provided in tandem with traditional interview techniques. Scans can help resistant people see that their illnesses are real and in need of treatment, and they may help the treatment team to see the extent of damage that the person is dealing with. Scans might also help treatment teams to measure recovery, as some problems attributed to mental illness can be measured by brain size, blood flow and energy use in the brain. A secondary scan could show that kind of progress.

Scans aren’t without risk, however, as they do tend to emit radiation. They are also typically performed with very loud machines that people must crawl into. Some people just aren’t well enough to deal with a dose of radiation, and others find the confining nature of the tests too hard to deal with. People who have these issues might try to avoid the scans altogether.

In general, it’s best to talk with the treatment team about the risks and benefits of scanning, and then ensure that the scans will be just one part of the care the person is destined to receive. Customized care is always best, when a mental health issue is in play, and talking with a therapist is often the best way to make that happen.


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Dealing with a mental health issue in a beloved family member isn’t easy, especially when that person might also be using and abusing drugs. If you’re searching for the right kind of help for someone you love, please call us. We can direct you to a Dual Diagnosis facility that provides care for both addiction and mental health issues, and we can help you to find a facility that uses scans, if that’s something that you think might be helpful. Just call and we’ll get started.


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