In the last few weeks the online and print communities have been touting neuroimaging research. Every disease of the brain, as well as some normal functions, are finding their way through the newest and greatest of fMRI, MRI, and PET. Recent studies for depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s are reporting findings that help identify different parts of the brain where the disease resides and declaring that the brain in diseased individuals is different than the normal individual. It is fairly certain that we knew that before the research and the expensive technology that demonstrated those facts. Didn’t we?
Studies about what happens in the brain during laughter, whether or not it is predictable that a criminal will commit another crime, or if an alcoholic will relapse is based on what parts of the brain “light up” during the scan. Dream exploration is in the future. A company in Japan using fMRI is already studying what happens to the brain while dreaming. Study subjects were awakened from dreams, asked to describe what they were seeing in detail, and that information is matched with brain activity data that could later be used to “decode” future dreams. There seems to be no horizon not scheduled for exploration. The ingenuity of the research seems to depend upon the scientist’s imagination and creativity.
Many of the new research studies are focused on treatment results before and after certain medications. To be able to track the progress and effectiveness of the pharmaceuticals on mental disorders has the ability to significantly change the field of treatment. For too many years the patient has tried to describe how he felt after treatment with antidepressants, tranquilizers, or other psychotic drugs. What a difference it would make if an actual test could prove or demonstrate how much change occurred and with what dosage. Most of the research reported compares the medication in one population to another population that has been given a placebo. The only real suspicion comes when the research is funded by the manufacturer of the pharmaceutical. It makes one consider how much of the research is not reported because it did not have a positive result.
It is very exciting to move closer to identifying the visual fingerprint of brain diseases through neuroimaging with MRI, CT or PET or combination of these technologies. Identification of a disease signature could lead to earlier treatment and possibly a better patient outcome. It has the opportunity to move treatments for mental disorders into the realm of quantification and measurement. It cannot arrive too soon.