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Diagnostic brain scans still preliminary, despite optimistic announcement

Brain scans may help diagnose neurological, psychiatric disorders

Our Review Summary

This news release reports findings from a study of functional MRI (fcMRI) scans in which researchers analyzed data from more than 10 hours of fcMRI scans on each of nine people. During the scans, each person performed a variety of tasks to determine the extent to which their behaviors altered the picture of their brain activity. The researchers found that each person’s brain imaging changed little from day-to-day or task-to-task. That is, the brain scans appeared to reflect fundamental, stable features of the brain. The release suggests that, based on these findings, its possible to use this type of brain scan to diagnose individual traits or diseases. That is very premature. Diagnostic tests have yet to be developed.

The release headline promises more than the news release delivers, and there’s a real question as to whether this information is useful to the public, or just misleading.

 

Why This Matters

The heading of this news release proclaims hopefully that “Brain scans may help diagnose neurological, psychiatric disorders.”  Whereas at present depression, bipolar disorder, and many other mental illnesses can only be diagnosed based on self-reported symptoms or observations of behavior, this release suggests we are on the verge of being able to diagnose these conditions via a particular type of MRI.

However, the study referred to simply laid the groundwork for research testing whether functional networks in individuals’ brains are relatively stable over time. Diagnostic applications remain to be developed.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made of the cost of functional MRIs, or how likely it is that insurance companies might cover that cost.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

Some numbers would have been helpful here to put the findings in context. Consistency of the brain scans for the various mental tasks is not quantified in the news release. Furthermore, contrary to the implications of the headline, this study didn’t actually develop any diagnostic tools for depression, migraines, or other brain ailments. It simply laid the groundwork for research about these issues by testing whether functional networks in individuals’ brains are relatively stable over time. That’s a preliminary step that is needed, but it’s still preliminary.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made of discomforts or potential dangers associated with MRIs.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The news release goes into some detail about the number of people and hours of brain activity that were measured, with 333 different areas of participants’ brains identified and compared. A sample of nine people is small, but 10 hours of data per volunteer provided researchers with 90 hours of fcMRI data to analyze.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

Although it over promises on the applicability of the study results, no disease mongering is evident.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

Funders of the study are listed on a sidebar of the news release hosting site, EurekAlert!

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Brief mention is made of self-reporting and behavior as current options for diagnosing illnesses like migraines, depression, and bipolar disorder but there’s no mention of their limitations or how a new diagnostic test might compare.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

We are not told how available fcMRIs are to the general public.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The news release explains why findings in the study are news and why they could, in the words of the lead authors, “open the door to an entire new field of clinical testing.”

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

The headline and opening paragraph are misleading since they suggest there’s already a medical application for this research. It’s important to remember, though, that this is basic science research that may or may not eventually lead to clinical applications after much more research years into the future.

Total Score: 4 of 10 Satisfactory

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