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December 2, 2011 at 3:08 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

MRI for Depression?

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the The Well Mind Blog Series

Most of us know MRI as the brain-scanning technology which “photographs” the matter in our head, however a new study suggests it may be doing more than just documenting things in there.  MRIs, experts say, may actually change brain activity – and in a way that improves depression!

In a study published this week, volunteers with major depressive disorder (all of which were taking SSRI antidepressants) were  scored on a depression scale and organized into three groups - the first two receiving one of two types of genuine MRI scan, the last getting a phony MRI.

In the placebo group, though the magnet itself wasn’t on, a recording of a real MRI session was played in order to convince them it was. 

Two weeks later, all groups were evaluated for depression again.

Though all groups, including the placebo group, showed some improvement, those that had received either one of the genuine MRI scans improved on the depression scale by between 35 and 40%. The placebo group improved by only 15 to 19%.   

The obvious question now being – what exactly does the MRI do to our brain?

While there’s no clear answer yet, experts have a theory.

Michael Rohan, who ran his own MRI studies eight years ago through Harvard Medical School, points out that though many studies have been done with high powered magnets on the mind, the power of an MRI magnet is relatively weak – too weak to actually change the behavior of our neurons and their axon tails sending signals in the brain.

Instead, he speculates that the electrical fields generated by the magnetic power of the MRI help to synchronize those signals being sent through our neuron’s dendrite branches. After all, electrical brain activity that is “out of sync” has been associated with a wide variety of disorders.

Previous research on manic depressive patients supports this idea.

Bruce Cohen, director of the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital, said of his own MRI study:

“One part of me said, 'It's unlikely.' But another part said, 'Why not?' People go in and out of depression on their own. Electromagnetic fields generated by the scanner could nudge a depressed brain back toward normal."

In his study, 77% of bipolar participants said they felt better after being scanned while only 30% receiving the placebo scan claimed the same.

"The pulses travel from right to left trough a thick cable of nerves that coordinate activity between the two halves of the brain…In depression, the two halves of the brain may get out of balance, and the electromagnetic pulses may restore the balance.It's a small and preliminary study based on an accidental discovery…But our results suggest that the electric fields produced by certain types of brain scans are associated with mood improvement in people with bipolar disorder," said Cohen.

While a room sized brain scanner is hardly a practical prescription for most, smaller, cheaper table top scanners are in development.

While more research with larger scale studies will need to be done, the results of these studies are certainly intriguing and, I suspect, will inspire many other researchers to conduct their own experiments.



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