Advances in New Technologies Getting Us Closer to Diagnostic Tools for Mental Illnesses

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Helen Mayberg, M.D., professor of Psychiatry and Neurology at Emory University
Helen Mayberg, M.D.

Scientific Council Members Eric R. Kandel, M.D., and Helen Mayberg, M.D., discuss how new technologies are moving the field of brain and behavior research closer to developing diagnostic tools for mental illness. Where other chronic illnesses have blood tests, electrocardiograms and the like for diagnoses, no such tools exist for mental illness.

Dr. Mayberg says that one of the biggest problems is that mental illness diagnoses are often catchall categories that include many different underlying malfunctions. Mental illnesses have always been described by their outward symptoms, both out of necessity and convenience. But just as cancer patients are a wildly diverse group marked by many different disease pathways, a depression diagnosis is likely to encompass people with many unique underlying problems. That presents challenges for defining the disease in biological terms. "Depression does have patterns," Mayberg says. "The caveat is different cohorts of patients clearly have different patterns — and likely the need for different specific interventions."

Dr. Kandel notes that “all mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases."  He went on to say that since the brain is the organ of the mind - “Where else could [mental illness] be if not in the brain?"  Dr. Kandel notes that this awareness is important not only to improve its treatment: "Schizophrenia is a disease like pneumonia,” he says. “Seeing it as a brain disorder destigmatizes it immediately.”

The two researchers’ views, along with those of Thomas R. Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health, were highlighted in the American Psychological Association publication, APA Monitor. Dr. Insel believes the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness is today where cardiology was 100 years ago. And that like cardiology of yesteryear, the field is poised for dramatic transformation, he says. "We are really at the cusp of a revolution in the way we think about the brain and behavior, partly because of technological breakthroughs. We're finally able to answer some of the fundamental questions."

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