Changing how we diagnose and treat mental illness

Originally Published at News@Northeastern by Christine Regan Davi

Imagine that a doctor could know which treatment would best help a patient with depression, anxiety, or some other mental illness by taking a picture of the person’s brain, not unlike the way people get an X-ray for a broken bone.

That, along with early detection and intervention tools, will be in the future of clinical psychiatric practice, said Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, who started this semester as a psychology professor at Northeastern. And, the work she and her colleagues will do together at Northeastern’s Center for Cognitive and Brain Health promises to play a role in helping prevent psychiatric disorders from progressing or developing at all.

Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli

Mental illness affects one in five adults in the United States and nearly 50 percent of all adolescents, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Today, clinicians rely heavily on pencil-and-paper diagnostic tools, including questionnaires and other behavioral assessments, to pinpoint and treat psychiatric disorders. But success is often hard-won, involving years of trial and error with medications and therapies before finding treatments that bring relief.

Whitfield-Gabrieli, a neuroscientist who is an expert in using brain imaging to understand how various regions of the brain are interconnected, hopes to change that. She said brain imaging science holds a key to bringing fundamental changes in how patients with mental illnesses are diagnosed and treated.