Millions of people are struggling with depression, anxiety, and other types of mental illness. Treatments are often ineffective or partial. But a glimpse of hope is appearing on the horizon with the discovery that these conditions may be linked to specific differences in a region of the brain. If, and when the full mechanism of this brain alteration is explained, it could result in better prevention and treatment for people affected or at risk.
A Duke University study is the first to link specific differences in the brain to what is common across many types of mental illness, meaning that people with this brain alteration are more at risk for developing multiple forms of mental disorders. Studies consistently show that up to half of people with one mental illness also experience one or more additional forms of mental condition.
Very often, people who suffer from a mental disorder like schizophrenia or depression also experience another form of mental illness. For example, when a person suffers from depression, he, or she will often also be plagued by anxiety, hypochondria, bipolar or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The research, based on interviews and brain scans from more than a thousand of Duke students, shows that individuals who suffered from multiple types of mental illness consistently exhibited differences in two regions of the brain, the cerebellum — also called “little brain” — and the pons, which are normally associated with complex motor function.
It could mean that these areas of the brain could not only play a role in movements coordination but also provide real-world feedback that helps us regulate thoughts and emotions. The risk of developing mental illnesses could be a deficiency to monitor and coordinate information such as thoughts and emotions in relation to the world outside. And if this coordination process is compromised, it may result in some forms of mental illness, more or less severe.
These findings, when replicated, will confirm that mental illness like depression or anxiety could be the result of a brain dysfunction and that people are more or less genetically at risk to be affected. It could unveil the common mechanisms or risk factors that might cause all types of mental disorders and help the prevention of their development.
“There is growing reason to believe that variations in some brain networks predispose people to have any mental health problem, in a nonspecific way,” said Benjamin Lahey, professor of epidemiology, psychiatry, and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “If these findings are replicated, they will be of great importance to how we understand the neural bases of psychological problems.”
The team plans to repeat the study in different populations, starting with New Zealanders and will seek more detailed MRI scans of the cerebellum in order to explore precisely what role this brain region plays in mental health.