Brain scans could be used to diagnose depression and tailor treatments for it

Nance Haxton
ABC News
June 1, 2016

Brain scans can reveal whether someone suffers from depression and show what kind of depression they have, according to a breakthrough new study.

The findings, published in Psychological Medicine, showed that medical imaging techniques, commonly known as MRIs, show distinct differences in the brains of people suffering different types of depression.

Researchers conducted MRI scans on people diagnosed with depression while they watched happy and sad movies.

They discovered there were very distinct neuro-biological changes in different parts of their brains, depending on which type of depression they had.

Professor Gordon Parker of Black Dog Institute says it is a significant breakthrough.

“This study is distinctly informative in telling us that there at least two key types of depression,” Professor Parker said.
“One is the very biological depression which we call ‘melancholia’. We do need to be able to identify this condition so that people with it can be properly treated.
“We need better ways of separating out the biological type of depression from the other conditions. And particularly when we know the cause and the regions of the brain that affect it — this is an opportunity for developing more appropriate treatments.
“I think it builds an increasingly clearer story in terms of where the problems lie in the brain when people go into the ‘Black Dog’ of melancholic depression.”

Group leader Dr Michael Breakspear said the findings would help doctors break through the often overlapping symptoms that people with depression experience.

“A number of our recent brain imaging studies have found distinct sub-types of patterns of activity in the brain for people with depression,” Dr Breakspear said.
“What we have been doing in psychiatry is just classifying people into disorders based on their symptoms. But as imaging technology has advanced, we’re now at the point where we can find distinct underlying differences in the brains of people that we know from other studies respond differently to different types of medication.”

The joint study was carried out by QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, the University of New South Wales and the Black Dog Institute.

While it may still be years before the diagnostic tools are ready for more general use, Professor Parker said the findings were an important step towards more effective treatment of depression.

“It sort of advances our clinical observation that we’ve long known — for over 2,000 years,” he said.
“This study not only shows that people with melancholia have certain disconnections in the brain that people with non-melancholic depression and normal people don’t show, even when depressed. It points at the areas of the brain that are involved and tells us something as to the actual causal process where things go wrong when people are in episode.”

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