One brain network may be involved in six mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder have all been linked to problems in the same circuit areas of the brain.

Health


January 12, 2023

A single brain network may be involved in up to six mental health conditions

One brain network has been linked to six mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety

KATERYNA KON / SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

Disruptions in one network of brain regions may be involved in the emergence of six mental health conditions.

This claim comes from an analysis of existing sets of medical data. The authors concluded that problems within the same brain network may be involved in depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Brain scan studies have previously indicated that several different regions of the organ are associated with different mental health problems, but their results have been inconsistent, he says. Joseph Taylor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. Taylor and his colleagues wondered if this discrepancy was because a number of different brain regions within a single network could all be at play.

To find out more, the team looked at the health records of 194 Vietnam War veterans who had sustained a physical injury to their brain. Veterans were more likely to develop multiple mental health conditions, including the six previously mentioned, if they had damage to areas in the back of the brain, including an area called the posterior parietal cortex, which is associated with spatial awareness.

They were less likely to have such a diagnosis if they had been injured near the front of the brain, including in the anterior cingulate, an area associated with emotions, and the insula associated with self-awareness.

The team compared its findings to an existing map of the brain’s connections, known as a neural network. This showed that when specific regions in the back of the brain have low activity, regions in the front tend to have higher activity, and vice versa.

The researchers also looked at 193 brain scan studies that included nearly 16,000 people. They found that individuals with any of the six mental health conditions tended to have reduced tissue in the frontal regions or in other areas associated with them.

Taken together, the results indicate that in people without any mental health condition, the posterior regions of the brain become inhibited in the frontal regions, while in people with damage in the posterior regions, the frontal regions become overactive, which can lead to mental illness and Tissue shrinkage, says Taylor.

This supports previous surgeries by other researchers that destroyed small parts of the brain in people with severe mental health conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, that didn’t respond to other treatments. All of the sites that were destroyed were in the forward areas.

Taylor’s team called the circuit the Diagnostic Network because it appears to be involved in many different psychiatric diagnoses. He plans to boost brain activity in the posterior regions using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation as a potential treatment for mental illness.

The findings fit with the idea that rather than different mental illnesses having disparate causes, they may have a common underlying cause, or ‘p-factor’. The idea is controversial because conditions like depression and schizophrenia have very different symptoms.

“The findings add to the growing weight of evidence that most mental disorders share vulnerabilities,” he says. Terry Moffitt at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

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