Brain imaging can predict future learning and addiction behaviors
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future learning and addiction behaviors

Neuroimaging procedures, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have contributed significantly to the field of neuroscience overall. Specifically, these procedures have added to the cognitive understanding of the human brain and to how the images of the brain relate to specific behaviors and mental health conditions. To date, this technology has not been utilized broadly in the diagnostic protocols, specifically the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). An article, published January 7, 2015, by the Cell Press journal Neuron, reviewed the many recent studies demonstrating how brain imaging can help predict an individual’s future learning, behaviors related to substance abuse, eating habits and relapse.

Authored by John D.E. Gabrieli, Ph.D., and colleagues of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the review illuminates the recent imaging studies’ results and how this data can be used to predict such problems as learning disabilities or a criminal’s likelihood to become a repeat offender, among many other future behaviors.

“If we can use neuroimaging to identify individuals at high risk for future failure, we may be able to help those individuals avoid such failure altogether,” according to Gabrieli.

Predictors of specific abilities

Neuroimaging measures the human brain structure and function, identifying variations in the strengths and limitations. Using MRI and variations of it, as well as EEG and MEG, brain structure can be quantified by measuring volume, thickness or density, the microstructural properties of white matter pathways, and brain functions.

Studies have shown how brain imaging has identified certain neuromarkers associated with subsequent learning or cognitive performance. Anatomical brain differences in language-related neural systems have been related to variation in learning new languages. Larger anatomical structures in the language-dominant left hemisphere might support the processing needed to learn a non-native language.

Similarly, neuromarkers are correlated with musical and visual learning. Individuals who, at baseline, exhibited higher slopes of MRI activation in the bilateral auditory cortex to determine pitch-interval size exhibited greater learning over a two-week training period.

Regarding predictability of future performance, brain measures in infants have correlated with success or failure in language and reading years before instruction. Mapping EEG results over time, it was possible to predict the children who would become dyslexic.

Using MRI, along with visuospatial working memory task, can predict future mathematical performance related to engineering and science. Using neuroimaging analyses focusing on the brain region associated with both visuospatial working memory and numerical representation, these measures were independent predictors of performance two years later.

Predictors of relapse likelihood

Exciting studies related to drug and alcohol use, addiction and relapse show much promise in future predictability of these behaviors. In one longitudinal study using MRI, adolescents with no history of substance use performed a go/no-go task while undergoing MRI. Four years later, they were divided up into two groups depending on whether or not they had progressed to heavy alcohol use. The findings suggest that a relative weakness in the anterior brain regions that are associated with cognitive control of behavior might be a predisposition for early alcohol use or sustained use.

The most significant brain predictors of future binge drinking came from the right precentral and bilateral superior frontal gyri, according to a study of 700 adolescents which utilized their detailed histories, personality measures, genetic information, cognitive measures and MRI data.

Neuromarkers are not yet used to predict treatment response for substance use disorders, despite evidence that a treatment modality, including pharmacological, that is effective in some patients might not be effective in others with the same condition. Studies have shown that there are clinically important neurobiological differences among patients sharing a diagnostic label, so that a specific treatment will be effective for some but not other patients.

The concept of personalized medicine, that people vary in their response to treatments and that more effective medicine can be practiced by knowing which treatment is most likely to benefit a particular patient, has been associated often with genetics. Brain measures could also reveal important distinctions that provide an evidence-based rationale for selecting the treatment that will have the better probability of helping each individual patient.

At least 60 percent of patients who seek treatment for an alcohol use disorder relapse within six months following treatment, yet several brain studies reveal brain measures that are associated with future abstinence versus relapse. In particular, greater activation of the putamen was associated with a greater likelihood of relapse three weeks or three months later.

Tailored treatments

The vast strides in technology have produced more than 15,000 MRI studies of various psychiatric conditions. Psychiatric disorders, many of which are inheritable, have a brain basis, so it is probable that eventually the studies in genetics and neuroimaging will someday play a larger role in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.

Ultimately, the goal for using neuromarkers for prognosis is to perform individualized predictions of health or educational outcomes. As advances in study designs occur, neuromarkers might offer authentic opportunities to personalize educational and clinical practices that can lead to better outcomes for people.

Sovereign Health of California is an addiction, mental health and dual diagnosis treatment provider, offering several locations in its home state as well as centers in Utah, Arizona and Florida. For more information on substance use and mental health disorders, please call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Eileen Spatz, Sovereign Health Group writer

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