Imagine a future where your doctor could find out if you have mental health issues by monitoring your brain.
That future may be some way off, but research fellow Sandra Klonteig at OsloMet is working on a research project with the goal of moving one step closer.
She wants to find out more about how we can use technology to measure mechanisms in the brain that may indicate whether someone has depression or anxiety.
“The dream is that in the future a doctor or psychologist will be able to monitor your brain activity while you are performing various tasks. They could use the results from monitoring the brain in addition to more traditional diagnosis methods, such as self-reporting and clinical observations,” explains Klonteig.
Glass half empty or half full
Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health issues in Norway.
Some research has been done on what differentiates the brain of someone with depression or anxiety from other brains.
“The way someone interprets the world can be a way of differentiating. Those struggling with anxiety or depression often have a negative interpretation of the world around them. That is, they see the glass as half empty rather than half full,” Klonteig points out.
Imagine being in a forest and seeing a shadow in your peripheral vision. Do you imagine it to be a scary animal or just a big harmless tree?
People with anxiety will often interpret the shadow as something frightening.
A study from 2015 found that participants who were depressed were more likely to turn their attention to images of sad faces than images of happy faces.
“These attentional biases may explain why we develop mental health issues and why it is difficult to break the pattern,” the researcher continues.
Which technology is best?
Klonteig is working to find out which type of technology is best for measuring this attentional bias directly in the brain.
In the laboratory at OsloMet, she is testing three different technologies:
- Eye-tracker is a technology that measures our gaze and where we focus, typically when looking at a screen.
- fNIRS (Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy) measures where the blood flows in the brain and thus where the brain expends energy.
- EEG (electroencephalography) measures brain waves by registering electrical impulses in the brain. The signals are amplified and filtered by the EEG machine.
Measuring mental health over time
Klonteig’s goal is to use one or more of these technologies in a study in which she wants to monitor young women's mental health over time.
“The reason I have chosen young women is that women have a much higher prevalence of anxiety and depression. Besides that, more research is needed into the female brain,” states Klonteig.
After the first study, the plan is to use an app to monitor mental health over time, where the participants also will receive feedback along the way.
After the research project, the dream situation would be to have an effective technology that can be used by doctors and psychologists in diagnosis and treatment.
“Some forms of treatment, such as antidepressants, don't work for everyone. This will hopefully make it easier to identify who needs what treatment.”
“Can be very motivational for treatment”
The method can perhaps also be used actively in the treatment of patients.
“If we are able to observe a mechanism linked to anxiety and depression, we may also be able to see positive changes in the brain before the patient is even aware. This can be very motivational for treatment.”
Currently, it might take a couple weeks before people suffering from depression feel the effect of antidepressants, but new measurement methods might allow possible changes to be observed sooner.
A 2015 study was able to observe changes after just one dose of antidepressants.
“This could allow us to get a better understanding of how antidepressants work. It could also help ensure that treatments that don’t work are stopped sooner,” concludes Klonteig.
- A single dose of antidepressant alters eye-gaze patterns across face stimuli in healthy women (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
- Double attention bias for positive and negative emotional faces in clinical depression (pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).
The project is a collaboration between two OsloMet research groups.