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While a host of serious mental health illnesses — from schizophrenia to depression — have historically been diagnosed by symptoms, a new study that locates them all to the same areas of the brain offers hope for future treatments.
The study, conducted by researchers under the direction of Dr. Amit Etkin, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Stanford University, was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry.
Etkin and his crew compared hundreds of brain images covering six major psychiatric disorders. What they found was that “most of the disorders were linked to gray matter loss in a network of three brain regions involved in higher cognitive functions, such as self-control and certain types of memory,” noted a Live Science review.
The similarities in brain structure for all of the ailments suggest that treatments for one of the conditions might be effective for others, according to the researchers.
“We wanted to test a very simple question that simply hadn’t been asked,” Etkin said, “whether common psychiatric disorders have a common structure in the brain.”
Analyzing more than 7000 images produced evidence that all of the ailments showed loss of gray matter— tissue that contains the bodies of nerve cells — in three regions deep in the brain: the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), the right insula, and the left insula. These areas, according to neuroscientists, are linked to executive functioning, which Etkin defines as the things that allow a person to function in life — for instance, hold down a job, maintain a relationship, and resist impulses and distractions.
“I think clinicians tend to think this way already, but we had not had the connection to the science,” Etkin said. “As a clinician, I see commonalities between patients , but until I did this study, I was unable to understand what they were and how they operate.”
What’s next for the researchers? Etkin wants to investigate whether brain activity also exhibits similarities across the different disorders. His team is now developing tools to apply noninvasive brain stimulation to the brain regions studied, in an effort to determine if stimulation there could help patients with these disorders.
Etkin is hopeful that better treatments are “not off in the imaginary future, but in the next couple of years.”
Tags depression, Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, Mental Disorders, research, schizophrenia, Stanford University
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