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Brain Scans Help Patients Improve Depressive Symptoms

Depression is a common mental disorder, affecting three to four percent of the United States population. However, while the disorder is common, it is very serious, often affecting normal daily life and major events.

Treatment for depression often involves therapy, antidepressants, or a combination of both elements. For many, additional recommendations such as exercise can help alleviate the intensity of symptoms.

A new study finds that patients may eventually be treated by teaching them to manipulate the brain’s reactions to stimuli. While it is in the early stages of testing, a therapy designed to help patients recognize their brain’s reaction to positive images and then learning to apply that reaction to other cues may be pivotal in treating depression in the future.

Researchers at Cardiff University found that when patients were offered the opportunity to observe their own brains as they responded to imagery, they were able to manipulate the outcome and feel less depressed.

The study involved eight individuals who were allowed to watch their brains using an MRI scanner as they reacted to positive images. When the patients had been involved in four sessions of this type of therapy, they exhibited significant improvement in depressive symptoms.

A second group of eight participants were told to think positively, but were not offered the option of seeing their brains using an MRI scanner. These patients experienced no improvement in depressive symptoms.

The authors of the study explain that using the MRI scanners aids in teaching depressed individuals a trial-and-error method to understanding the impact of positive imagery on their brains. The process is called neurofeedback and it was first developed as a way to help those with Parkinson’s disease.

While the initial results from this study may provide support for the use of this therapy, the authors note that the method requires extensive testing to determine whether it might be an effective option for the treatment of depression. It is especially unknown whether the results might be effective on a long-term basis.

Professor David Linden led the research and believes that the findings show that the therapy may become part of a recommended treatment regimen for depression.

The authors explain that about one-fifth of people will experience depression at some point in their lifetime and about a third of those affected will not find success with traditional treatment. They say that one outcome of the study is that many people were intrigued with the ability to engage with their brains through a scanner and find that they could manipulate the activity there.

Further research with a larger sample size is necessary to determine how the method could be used to treat depression. The findings of the study appear in a recent issue of the journal PLoS One.

There is still hope.

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