How Doctors Are Using Brain Imaging to Treat Depression

How Doctors Are Using Brain Imaging to Treat Depression

  • Typically, depression is diagnosed based on what a patient describes about their emotional and mental state. People who suffer from depression often state that they're sad more often than not and that things they used to enjoy are no longer enjoyable.

    The biggest hurdle in diagnosing depression is overcoming the stigma and embarrassment of possibly having a mental health disorder. It's hard to talk about such raw, emotional, and personal details. Another issue is the fact that depression manifests itself in different ways. Some patients stop eating, others gain weight and suffer from anxiety. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to depression symptoms.

    While there aren’t many biological indicators that can be used to diagnose someone with depression, brain imaging has proven to be useful in diagnosing and helping to shape a treatment plan.

    What Does Brain Imaging Show?

    A recent study that was published in Nature Medicine discuss biological markers that can be used to distinguish different types of depression. To get a better look at the brain, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure the connection strength between the brain and neural circuits. From these images researchers were able to pinpoint four types of depression.

    While further research is needed to confirm initial findings, the potential of using biological indicators paves the way for clearer diagnoses and more personalized and effective therapies that treat the brain.

    Based on the research, it was observed that certain patients experienced higher levels of fatigue while others discussed a lack of pleasure. In the future there is hope that certain treatment types can be matched to a type of depression. For example, those who report a lack of pleasure may benefit from a treatment known as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Because TMS uses a magnet to create small electric currents in the brain, the under-functioning reasons can be restored through TMS therapy.

    The Next Steps

    Though several studies have been conducted to compare depressed brains to those who don’t have the condition, it will take some time before brain imaging becomes a fool-proof way of diagnosing depression. Doctors and researchers will need to find common ground and patterns between the various types of depression so there is one unified method of determining if a patient has depression and the type.

    In the future, it’s hoped that brain imaging can not only be used to diagnose depression but also to:

    • Determine treatment options
    • Determine the success rate of treatment
    • Understand other mental health disorders
    • Diagnose other conditions that may impact depression symptoms

    While there is still a way to go in using brain imaging to diagnose and treat depression, the future is bright in this health arena.

    Treatment Options

    There are several forms of brain treatment that can be used to treat depression. The top two options include electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

    Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)

    The use of ECT dates back hundreds of years. In fact, ECT is the most commonly used brain treatment for those who suffer from depression. When undergoing ECT treatment, an electric current is formed in the brain that creates a spurt of energy. This causes the patient to have a seizure. Though seizures can be quite scary to experience and even scarier to watch, patients are given anesthesia and a muscle relaxant to avoid the convulsions that are often seen in someone who is having a seizure.

    The biggest drawback to ECT is memory loss. Patients often have a hard time remembering past memories so doctors encourage people to create new memories to get that functionality in the brain back up and running.

    Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

    While electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is often the go-to procedure for those with severe, long-term, or treatment resistant depression, TMS has proven to be an effective brain treatment for depression. As we better understand how depression impacts regions of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, doctors will be able to pinpoint which treatment of combination thereof will produce the best results for a patient.

    TMS is beneficial in that it is safe, non-invasive, has minimal side effects, and is designed to target and restore those abnormal connections in the brain. Unlike ECT and other forms of brain treatment options, TMS typically produces minimal to no side effects. Some patients have complained of headache and scalp discomfort but nothing as serious as the memory loss that is often found in those who undergo ECT.

    Conclusion

    As it stands physical symptoms are the best indicators of whether or not someone has depression. But, with the continued research of using brain imaging to diagnose and determine treatment brings new hope and ideas into the mental health realm.