Dec. 26 (UPI) -- Brain imaging may help identify children at risk for mood disorders as they grow up, a new study suggests.
In findings published Thursday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers were essentially able to predict attention problems, as well as mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, in young grade school children using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI.
Although additional research is needed to confirm and expand upon these results, the authors told UPI their findings mean that brain imaging could one day be used as a screening tool for these disorders.
"A child's brain and behavior change a fair amount over the years," said co-author Silvia Bunge, professor of developmental psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. "A minor issue, such as low attentional focus or a tendency to get anxious or sad, could resolve as a child goes into adolescence, or it could get worse. It would be very helpful to know which of these is more likely to be the case."
Laurie Cutting, the Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Special Education, Psychology, Radiology and Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, performed fMRIs on 94 7-year-olds and followed them for a four-year period.
The researchers found that those who had fMRI findings suggesting "weaker connectivity" in their brains' medial prefrontal cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex were more likely to develop attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Those with imaging findings suggesting "weaker connectivity" in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, however, were more likely to develop anxiety or depression.
The results indicate that fMRI findings in children as young as 7 may serve as biomarkers -- or measurable predictors -- for the early identification of children at risk of developing mood disorders or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
"Psychiatric diagnoses are often done late in response to crisis and treated reactively instead of preventively," study co-author Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli, a professor of psychology and director of the Northeastern University Biomedical Imaging Center, told UPI.
Whitfield-Gabrieli said identification of the biomarkers at such a young age suggests earlier behavioral interventions -- such as exercise, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy -- could "prevent the potential progression to psychiatric illness.
Although both Whitfield-Gabrieli and Bunge acknowledge that use of fMRI in this fashion is likely not going to be standard practice for some time yet, Bunge said "it is our hope that, one day in the not too distant future, clinicians would scan children who are beginning to exhibit mental health issues -- and use the results to help inform their treatment plan, alongside a clinical workup."