A new study looks at over 70 scientific publications about brain scans such as functional magnetic resonance imaging or electroencephalography, noninvasive tests that measure brain activity.
The paper that runs in the latest edition of Neuron concludes that doctors might have more success treating some patients if they examined the way a person's brain functioned first.
Brain scans have been used to make basic discoveries about human behavior for decades, but they are not routinely ordered to determine someone's overall health or course of treatment in the way as blood test are used.
This new study
suggests technology in this area has become so advanced that approaches to treatment would be more effective if brain scans were used more routinely.
For instance, when someone is being treated for a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety, there is only a 50% success rate typically, according to John Gabrieli
, the lead author on this paper.
The professor of cognitive neuroscience at MIT believes that a brain scan could cut out a lot of the guesswork on what might make the most effective treatment for a person's depression.
"In so many situations right now, we have almost no idea which is the best way to promote a person's health," Gabrieli said. Some people may respond better to behavioral modification. Some may respond better to treating their depression with drugs. Some people might even have an adverse reaction to certain medication.
If the doctor were to scan that person's brain first, the scans could give the doctor an objective way to decide what treatment would work best for the patient.
"With this kind of science, we don't have to wait for a failure," Gabrieli said. "We know what will be the best fit."
Being able to anticipate where someone could fail might also give a doctor an opportunity to intervene before they do. For instance, a brain scan can show the greater likelihood of a teen getting hooked on drugs. If doctors could know that a teen was particularly vulnerable to addiction, they could attempt steer them away from that behavior.
On a scan, you can really see the difference between a healthy brain and an addict's brain.
There could be many additional health and education applications for these kinds of scans, Gabrieli said.
Brain scans could help predict what therapy would be most effective to help someone quit smoking. A brain scan could help teachers better understand which kinds of lessons would be best for a student. Brain scans could help a parole board better predict whether a criminal would reoffend if released from jail.
"Overall (this) is a very exciting perspective," wrote Mike Gazzaniga
in an email after reviewing the new study. Gazzaniga is the director of the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara. He agrees with the authors that this technology should and will be used more. This is "going to help in the thorny areas such as psychiatric disease. I see that happening in the near future."
Brain scans will become another effective tool to help doctors tailor their treatment for individual patients.
"We now commonly take blood tests for a huge variety of disease," Gazzaniga wrote. "When it comes to human behavior, brain imaging might well serve a similar purpose."
As the imaging has become highly accurate and highly specific, Gazzaniga adds the "task now is to figure out how the individual variation that is seen relates to a specific person's behavior. It is an exciting time."