Science is constantly teaching us more about the brain. A new study from the UK suggests that computer processing of brain scans on adolescents could reveal individuals more likely to develop anxiety or depression.
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, compared two groups of 16 teenagers. One group had parents with bipolar disorder; the other did not, but was age and sex-matched to the test group. There's an increased risk for children of adults with bipolar disorder, but there's no current way to identify if individuals will develop the condition.
A press release from the researchers summarised the research process:
The adolescents performed an emotional face gender-labelling task whilst in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which measures activity in the brain. In the first experiment, the faces presented had happy or neutral expressions; in the second experiment, the faces had fearful or neutral expressions.
The researchers then used a computer program capable of machine-learning to predict the probability that an individual belonged to either the low-risk or at-risk group. They found that the programme was accurate in three out of four cases. The predictive probabilities were significantly higher for at-risk adolescents who subsequently developed one of the psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety and depression than for those who remained healthy at follow-up. This suggests that it may be possible in time to develop a computer program able to identify those individuals at greatest risk of developing psychiatric disorders.
While we're still clearly some way off having a broad diagnostic tool for these issues, the ability to identify potential problems before they manifest themselves could be extremely helpful.