MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Dag Alnaes, PhD
Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders Research
KG Jebsen Centre for Psychosis Research
Division of Mental Health and Addiction, Oslo University Hospital
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Response: The transition from childhood to adulthood is characterized by swift and dramatic changes, both in our environment and in our brains. This period of life also coincides with the onset of many mental disorders.
To gain a better understanding of why, the clinical neurosciences must attempt to disentangle the complex and dynamic interactions between genes and the environment and how they shape our brains. The ultimate goal is to be able to predict which individuals are at risk before clinical symptoms appear. Advanced brain imaging has been proposed to represent one promising approach for such early detection, but there is currently no robust imaging marker that allows us to identify individuals at risk with any clinically relevant degree of certainty.
Our study shows that self-reported early signs of mental illness are associated with specific patterns of brain fiber pathways in young people, even if they may not fulfill criteria for a formal diagnosis or are currently in need of treatment.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: Our findings show that individual differences in general cognitive abilities and psychiatric symptoms in childhood and adolescence are partly explained by differences in the genetic architecture, i.e. they show a significant yet moderate level of heritability.
Next, using machine learning techniques and information from advanced brain imaging we were able to estimate both the individual age, general cognitive ability and psychiatric burden with an accuracy that was well above chance level. This tells us that the information provided in the brain scans contains clinically relevant information about the individual, but that there is still a lot to learn.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: First of all, in order to assess the generalizability of our findings they need to be replicated in independent samples.
Also, future studies should employ a longitudinal design that will make it possible to assess the value of our findings for prediction of future mental health. Further, we need more information about the neurobiological determinants of the brain imaging signals that we are studying, and here ongoing technological and analytical developments in the field of medical imaging will be critical.
Lastly, we need a better understanding of the within-subject stability both in brain patterns and cognitive and clinical traits, and future studies may benefit greatly from repeated brain imaging and high frequent phenotyping, e.g. by using technology enabled in smart phone applications.
Alnæs D, Kaufmann T, Doan NT, Córdova-Palomera A, Wang Y, Bettella F, Moberget T, Andreassen OA, Westlye LT. Association of Heritable Cognitive Ability and Psychopathology With White Matter Properties in Children and Adolescents. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online January 24, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.4277
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