Brain scans could flag children’s future mental health problems

January 3, 2020
By: Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations

It can take years to diagnose children with psychiatric or attention deficit disorders, forcing them to endure a lot of frustration and suffering.

Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, looks at children's brain scans.
A study led by Northeastern University psychologist Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, above, and UC Berkeley neuroscientist Silvia Bunge shows that brain scans in young children can predict future mental health and attention issues. (Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University)

But a new study led by scientists at UC Berkeley and Northeastern University has found evidence that brain scans, if conducted early, can predict whether a youngster is susceptible to mental health or attention problems down the road.

“We found a signature of brain function in childhood that helps to predict changes in mood symptoms over four years, and another one that helps to predict changes in attention,” said study senior author Silvia Bunge, a professor of psychology and a member of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at Berkeley.

The findings, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry, pave the way for early interventions — from cognitive behavior therapy to exercise or mindfulness regimens — that could mitigate or slow the advancement of certain neurodevelopmental disorders.

“Psychiatric diagnoses are often done late, in response to crisis, and treated reactively instead of preventively,” said the study’s lead author Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a psychology professor who is now at Northeastern University. “This study could have great clinical implications.”

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers analyzed brain data from 94 children over the course of four years, starting at age 7, and identified biomarkers for symptoms of depression, anxiety and attention deficit disorder that emerged in adolescence.

In children with mood disorders, they found weak connectivity between a control region in the prefrontal cortex and the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. Meanwhile, in children with attention disorders, they found an overly strong connection between that same prefrontal cortex region and the medial prefrontal cortex.

While brain scans are not yet available to screen for psychiatric vulnerabilities, Bunge is optimistic that they will eventually play a key role in the early detection of mental health disorders.

“It is our hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, brain scans of children who are beginning to exhibit mental health issues could help inform their treatment plan, alongside a clinical workup,” she said.

Other co-authors of the study are Carter Wendelken at Berkeley, Alfonso Nieto-Castañón and Yoon Ji Lee at Northeastern University, Stephen Kent Bailey and Laurie Cutting at Vanderbilt University, Sheeba Arnold Anteraper at Northeastern and MIT, Xiao-qian Chai at McGill University, Dina Hirshfeld-Becker at Massachusetts General Hospital and Joseph Biederman at Harvard University.