Two leading mental health professionals have cast doubt on the increasingly common practice of using fMRI studies to pinpoint the sites of psychiatric illnesses on anatomical images of the brain.
In their report, Finding the Elusive Psychiatric “Lesion” with 21st-Century Neuroanatomy: A Note of Caution, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, authors Dr. Eugenia Radulescu and Dr. Daniel R. Weinberger of John Hopkins University seek to warn their colleagues and patients that some of these studies should not be accepted blindly, and may promote misunderstanding and stigma.
“It is almost impossible to pick up a current psychiatric journal and not see a study of anatomical measurement made on MRI scans comparing patients with a psychiatric diagnosis with healthy subjects,” write the researchers. “These various findings are routinely referred to as ‘cortical thinning,’ ‘atrophy,’ ‘tissue loss,’ or worse, and they are assumed to be insights into the underlying nature of these conditions.”
Although both authors have admittedly both been involved in such research, they wish to discourage over-reliance on it. “The overarching purpose of this cautionary note is to encourage a discussion about a widely and tacitly recognized, though mostly ignored, “inconvenient” truth: that conventional MRI does not allow us to make firm inferences about the primary biology of mental disorders and that we need to acknowledge this as a starting point in realizing the full value of MRI studies in psychiatry,” they concluded.