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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 18, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Columns2014-2015

New technology may offer hope

We know much about how to deal with mental illness once it is diagnosed. There are hundreds of different medications that can be prescribed to help limit the effects certain symptoms have on individuals’ lives, and there are many opportunities for counseling and therapy throughout the country and several techniques within those settings to target specific behaviors and problems. We are lucky to live in a country where it is not overly difficult, generally speaking, to find methods to aid the struggles that come along with a mental illness once it has been diagnosed.

That is the problem, though. Lack of a definitive diagnosis leads to fewer opportunities for people to get the help they need or to take preemptive measures, so people who do not have the resources to get diagnosed do not have the ability to get help. Further, society is bombarded with the negative effects of mental illness and the steps to take to combat them, but ways to prevent these effects from occurring in the first place are rarely taught. It takes behavioral problems, slipping grades, dramatic changes in moods or a handful of other cues to prompt diagnosis and intervention.

An article recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Neuron discussed the development of using noninvasive brain scans, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, to predict future behavior. There are many applications of predictions, such as learning abilities, clues about criminality and likelihood of drug or alcohol use.

However, it will be especially useful in the detection of potential mental illness and associated behaviors. Certain neuronal markers on these scans are correlated to specific future behaviors. One major problem here is that neuroimaging is not cheap. There is the potential that this prediction technique could widen the already prevalent gap between people who can and people who cannot get help regarding mental illness.

Families who lack the resources to get a diagnosis would be the same families that would struggle to find the money for expensive neuroimaging. Now they not only cannot get help to cope with mental illness, but they also do not have access to warnings about future behavioral problems. Neuroimaging is definitely something that should be implemented in more clinical settings as it has more consistency than some other measures, but before that happens there needs to be a way to make it accessible.