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Great Potential Seen In Scanning Brains For “Mental Illness”

Some scientists are exploring the uses of brain scans in the detection and treatment of people labeled “mentally ill”. Media-Newswire has an article on the subject, Brain imaging gives new insight into mental disorders.

A new kind of psychiatry built on objective measures derived from functional magnetic resonance imaging ( or fMRI ) of the brain performed while patients play economic games could provide new insight into the diagnosis and, eventually, treatment of mental disorders, said researchers from Baylor College of Medicine in a review in the current issue of the journal Neuron.

Brain scans are used to explore the level of blood flow in different areas of the brain; increased blood flow indicates increased cognitive activity.

Not only will these brain scans be used in the labeling of “mental disorders”, researchers are also looking into the possibility of diagnosing and studying “normality” disorder through the use of these same machines.

These new tools will not only help produce new brain “signatures” associated with disorders such as autism, schizophrenia and borderline personality, they will also help identify the nature of normal variation in human decision making and the brain, said Dr. P. Read Montague, professor of neuroscience and director of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at BCM, and Dr. Kenneth T. Kishida, a postdoctoral fellow in the area.

They’ve found borderline personality disorder, they think.

In a crucial prior study, King-Casas and others at BCM identified a characteristic fMRI “signal” that distinguished borderline personality disorder – a disorder that is extremely hard to diagnose – from psychologically healthy controls.

The objective of these brain imaging studies seems to be directed at trying to determine the genes behind the “illness”, based on a more surefire method of determining the “illness”. One of the problems with this objective is that we haven’t yet determined that genes lie behind the “illness”.

Oh, well. Details…

One could easily imagine drug companies pouring money into such research. Alright, researchers are selling brain scan devices, yes, but once the brain is scanned, and the genes are identified, drug companies have got the drugs to maintain “the disorder”. If “the disorder” is genetic in origin, there is little a patient can do, of course, except pay drug companies for the chemical compounds to subdue it. So the theory runs anyway.

I would reckon “normality” must be equated with conformity, and so we could also be well on the way to “curing” an intransigent Western world of it’s treatment resistant democratic tendencies through the use of this and other such deviant detection devices.

One Response

  1. Last year some alleged cognitive scientists trolled the cognitive science community at livejournal and a related group at dreamwidth. Livejournal users were not amused and epic lulz ensued, as they say. There’s a blow-by-blow account of it here.

    This was one of the posts on the issue. These three paragraphs from neededalj’s post are instructive on the subject of fMRIs and well worth quoting here:

    Common imaging technologies include EEG, PET, and the current gold standard, fMRI. fMRI is a beautiful thing. It is also incredibly complicated, and our best machines still only have a resolution of about 1-2 mm. This is fantastic compared to any imaging techniques that came before, but is still much larger than a neuron and therefore does not let us take in everything that the brain is doing. In addition, the temporal resolution on fMRI is good but not great, so we still perceive actions at a lag rather than seeing what happens in ‘real time’. It is also very difficult to image the subcortical structures (which are deep inside the brain) or certain areas of the brain near sinus and other physiological features in the head.

    Possibly the only truly correct aspect of imaging studies Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam have mentioned is that often people extrapolate too far from imaging studies. Imaging studies are notorious for revealing differential activation in one area of the brain and then having the researchers (or the PR people, which is worse) stating that they have found ‘the area of the brain that does x’. I promise you, if you ever read something that says ‘this area of the brain does x’ and ‘x’ is ANY kind of complicated behavior, you aren’t getting the whole story.

    …oh, and I forgot my favorite problem with imaging studies. We don’t actually have a very good idea of which areas of the brain are where in different people. There’s a lot of variation. So when doing imaging, researchers average all of the scans together and do a hell of a lot of processing on the images. It’s not at all like taking picture or a video. Which just makes ‘this area of the brain does x’ even more problematic.

    There you have it. A concise criticism of fMRI from some one who cares about such things. I’ve read from other far more legitimate sources about the problems of fMRI, but none of them have been condensed so well as this guy did it. I don’t think things have changed much.

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