A new study in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE journal that looks to see if it is possible to design programs that predicts the risk of mental disorders among young people suggests that it may be so, giving doctors more time to intervene before illnesses set in.
This means that computer programs can be taught to select between brain scans of healthy young people and scans showing adolescents who are at higher risk of developing mental disorders such as anxiety and depression could likely be created in the future, writes Kate Kelland at Reuters.
Janaina Mourao-Miranda of University College London, who led the study, said:
"Combining machine learning and neuroimaging, we have a technique which shows enormous potential to help us identify which adolescents are at true risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders, especially where there is limited clinical or genetic information."
By 2020, the World Health Organization predicts that depression alone will be the second leading contributor to the global burden of disease across all ages. However, if we are able to diagnose potential problems and intervene at a young enough age, experts believe the damage caused by psychiatric disorders could be significantly reduced.
"A family history of bipolar disorder, for example, confers a 10 percent risk of future bipolar disorder, but also a 10 to 25 percent risk of conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), major depression and anxiety disorders and it is impossible to say which, if any, is more likely," writes Kelland.
Mourao-Miranda's team analyzed 16 healthy adolescents who each had a parent with bipolar disorder, and 16 whose parents had no history of psychiatric illness. The researchers then used computer programs to predict the probability that an individual belonged to either the low-risk or at-risk group and found it was accurate in three out of four cases.
"The researchers also found the computer program predicted significantly higher risk probabilities for young people who were found in follow-up to have developed psychiatric disorders than for those who remained healthy at follow-up."
Mary Phillips of Pittsburgh University in the United States believes that early detection and treatment of mental disorders that begin in adolescence could delay or even prevent future illness.
"Anxiety and mood disorders can have a devastating effect.
"If we are able to identify those individuals at greatest risk early-on, we can offer early and appropriate interventions to delay, or even prevent, onset of these terrible conditions."