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Could neuroimaging techniques predict psychosis?

Posted at 6:19 AM, Feb 22, 2016

One out of five Americans suffer from some kind of mental illness ranging from depression to schizophrenia, according to data compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration Services. But with advanced neuroimaging techniques and MRI scans, doctors may be able to predict which patients will later develop psychosis.

“We have high risk subjects, or high risk patients, and by looking at MRI scans of their brains, we are able to predict who of these patients will later develop psychosis,” said Professor Stefan Borgwardt.

Professor Stefan Borgwardt has dedicated his research career to applying neuroimaging and cognition methods to psychiatry. He is Professor of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Basel and head psychiatrist at the University Psychiatric Clinics (UPK) Basel. 

The cornerstone of Borgwardt’s work is using both structural and functional imaging techniques to be able to predict who will develop psychosis. The list of methods that his research group uses is impressive: from advanced neuroimaging techniques such as structural DTI to dynamic causal modelling, to multimodal imaging and imaging genetics.

The impact of the application of new imaging technology could be huge. “If you know who will develop a psychotic disorder, for instance, you could start treating earlier and that could possibly prevent psychiatric disorders,” Borgwardt explained. “That would be the biggest thing you could achieve as a scientist and as a doctor.”

However it is not just the patients who will benefit from the advances provided by Borgwardt’s research. For people who develop psychosis, the knock-on effects can be devastating. They can suffer from hallucinations, delusions and ego disturbances all of which can result in the loss of their friends, family and jobs.

“If treatment of these patients could start earlier, for instance, by using neuroimaging techniques, that would help not only the patients; that would help the families and the whole of society,” he said.

There is still a way to go for this final aim. However, Borgwardt says the research being conducted by his group and others is bringing us slowly closer. “The last 20 years many neuroscience methods were developed such as genetics and neuroimaging. They all mainly dealt with groups of patients. But in clinical practice, we only deal with single patients,” Borgwardt said.

But as scientists like Borgwardt work towards translate these research findings from groups of patients to single patients, more high risk patients will be able to get the treatment they need earlier.