Brain scans could spot children's mood, behavior problems early
MRIs might predict mood or learning disorders years before they happen.
By Zoe Reineck | Feb 11, 2020 | Print-friendly

Brain scans could help spot children who are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, or attention problems, suggests a study. In the study, which was published December 26 in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers describe identifying using imaging devices to scan children's brains for certain brain-tissue formations that are associated with heightened risk of emotional or attentiveness difficulties.

"We're facing a tremendous epidemic with teen anxiety and depression, and we wanted to find an early marker that predicted the development of anxiety, depression and attentional symptoms," said Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, the study's lead author. She is a professor of psychology and director of the Northeastern University Biomedical Imaging Center in Boston.

The researchers examined 94 children, most of whom did not exhibit any mental health concerns, although 17 were considered to be at risk of having reading problems. During the study, they conducted MRI scans of every child and found that connections in certain areas of the brain at age 7 could help predict the onset of depression, attention problems, or similar issues within the next four years of life.

Whitfield-Gabrieli suggested that children who exhibit the telltale biomarkers could receive early interventions, such as cognitive therapy, exercise programs, or mindfulness training to help them minimize their symptoms and halt the progression of any emerging psychological disorders.

The researchers noted that while it is not feasible to try to image all children's brains yet, it may be possible in the future with the development of more efficient, lower-cost imaging methods.

Whitfield-Gabrieli also hopes to scan infants' brains in a later study to see if it is possible to predict mental health issues at even earlier stages in life.