Scientists find new biomarkers for mental diseases with brain imaging

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Psychiatric disorders, like depression, have long posed challenges in diagnosis and treatment due to their reliance on subjective assessments of symptoms.

However, recent research has opened new avenues of hope by exploring biomarkers—objective biological or physiological markers—to improve our understanding and management of mental illnesses.

In a groundbreaking study published in Biological Psychiatry, researchers leveraged a vast dataset to identify predictive brain imaging-based biomarkers for mental illness in adolescents.

This innovative approach holds promise for enhancing the diagnosis, prediction, and treatment of psychiatric disorders.

The Quest for Objective Biomarkers

Traditionally, psychiatric disorders have been diagnosed based on subjective assessments of symptoms, which can be imprecise and variable from person to person.

The pursuit of biomarkers—measurable biological or physiological indicators—aims to bring objectivity to the diagnosis and treatment selection for these conditions.

A Wealth of Data: The ABCD Study

In this study, researchers tapped into a goldmine of data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which involved nearly 12,000 children aged 9 to 10 at its inception.

This extensive dataset provided a rich source of information to explore potential biomarkers for mental illness.

Modern neuroimaging techniques have opened windows into the inner workings of the human brain.

One such technique, resting-state functional connectivity (rsFC) analysis, allows researchers to study how different brain regions interact with each other over time. This approach offers valuable insights into the organization of brain circuits.

Promising Findings: A Brain-Based Biomarker

The senior author of the study, Dr. Yihong Yang, from the Neuroimaging Research Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, shared a key discovery.

Using functional MRI data, the researchers identified a brain connectivity variate—a measure of connectivity—that displayed a positive correlation with cognitive functions and a negative correlation with psychopathological measures.

Connecting the Dots: Bridging Cognition and Mental Disorders

The study’s findings shed light on the intricate relationship between cognition and mental disorders. Prior research had already hinted at shared neurobiology between these domains, a connection reinforced by the current study’s results.

One of the most striking revelations was the predictive power of this brain-based variate. It foretold the number of psychiatric disorders identified in participants both at the time of the brain scan and during the subsequent two years.

Additionally, it offered insights into the transition of diagnoses across different disorders over this two-year follow-up period.

A Transdiagnostic Insight: Understanding Early Adolescence

Dr. Yang emphasized the significance of these findings, stating, “These findings provide evidence for a transdiagnostic brain-based measure that underlies individual differences in developing psychiatric disorders in early adolescence.”

This suggests that the identified biomarker could be a valuable tool for understanding and addressing psychiatric disorders across different diagnostic categories.

A Public Health Imperative

In the words of Dr. John Krystal, MD, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, “Mental illness in adolescence has emerged as a cardinal public health challenge in the post-COVID era.”

Given this context, the study’s insights into neuroimaging data’s potential to illuminate mental illness risk across various diagnoses hold immense importance.

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The research findings can be found in Biological Psychiatry.

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