Mental Health Scans

While it's not yet possible to actually "see" a mental illness, at least not yet, doctors at Houston's famous Menninger Clinic are using high technology to help them see what's "causing" mental illnesses and disorders. Houston Public Radio's Jim Bell reports.

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography have been used to diagnose physical problems for years, but using them to diagnose mental disorders is fairly new. Psychiatrists and psychologists whose patients aren't responding to psychiatric care and medications are now using MRIs and PET scans to look inside their patient's brain to see if there's a physical reason for the disorder. Menninger Psychiatrist Dr. Florence Kim says knowing what's "not" causing a problem is as good as knowing what "is" causing it.

"If this person has been, what we say, maybe 'stuck', where they've had multiple medications and have been not responsive to treatment, I think then yes, certainly, a more comprehensive look with a neuropsychiatric perspective might be helpful."

Dr. Kim says any number of mental disorders can be traced to physical problems or abnormalities that will show up in an MRI or PET scan. Just one example:

"Things as simple as hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism, where the thyroid is under or overactive, can result in either depression or even manic or hypo manic behaviors, or increased anxiety. So certainly endocrine abnormalities such as that can cause psychiatric symptoms."

The Menninger Clinic has taken the use of MRIs and PET scans to the next level, with an assessment service that includes two to three weeks of psychiatric and psychological evaluations and testing using the brain scan technology. Most of the people who come to Menninger for this reason are referrals from mental health professionals who're having trouble diagnosing their patient's problem and are consulting Menninger for a second opinion.

Betsy Schwartz of the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston says making use of new technologies in diagnosing mental illnesses is a major step forward.

"All of the advances that have been made over the last, really, 10 years, in understanding the physiological nature of mental illnesses is crucially important in helping all of us understand what interventions are appropriate."

There's more information about the Assessment Program at the Menninger Clinic on our website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.