Researchers from the Columbia University have discovered that neuromelanin-sensitive magnetic resonance imaging (NM-MRI), a kind of MRI, can be a likely biological indicator for psychosis. The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), revealed that. the NM-MRI signal was an indicator of dopamine function particularly observed in individuals suffering from schizophrenia. These signals also pointed towards the severity of the mental illness.
Dr. Joshua Gordon, director of NIMH, shared that disturbed activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is related to the prevalence of several neurological and mental disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. Considering the role dopamine played in these types of disorders, measuring its activity was important to understand the said disorders, their diagnosis, and their treatment in a better way.
What is NM-MRI?
Neuromelanin, is a dark colored pigment formed within the dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra, the midbrain. This area of the brain is responsible for movement and reward system. Usually neuromelanin is accumulated during an individual’s lifetime. It gets cleared from a cell after it dies, which happens in the case of neurodegenerative diseases like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s. According to the researchers, the NM-MRI signal is detected at a lower frequency in the substantia nigra of patients suffering from such neurodegenerative disease, reflecting cell death.
Even though the tool is quite useful in detecting loss of neurons in patients with neurodegenerative illnesses, its utility has not been demonstrated in healthy patients. As a part of this study, the researchers conducted several studies to validate if NM-MRI can be used as an indicator of dopamine activity in people not suffering from neurodegenerative disorders.
Multiple steps led to validation of NM-MRI as a tool to detect psychosis
As a first step, the researchers wanted to figure out if NM-MRI can accurately detect regional variations in the concentration of neuromelanin in the substantia nigra of patients without neurodegeneration illnesses. For this, the researchers compared the neuromelanin measured with the help of NM-MRI and that measured chemically in the brain tissues of dead people during post-mortem. The results confirmed that the NM-MRI could accurately detect and measure regional variations concentrations of the neuromelanin. The findings also showed that in addition to detecting the concentration of neuromelanin in the cells, the NM-MRI signal could also detect these in tissues.
In the next step, the researchers set out to determine if the NM-MRI was able to detect neuromelanin variations in relatively smaller structural sub-regions within the substantia nigra. Dopamine activity is different in the different sections of the substantia nigra therefore, the researchers wanted to test the tool’s ability to detect these structural differences. Hence they closely observed the NM-MRI data of patients suffering from Parkinson’s and of those not suffering from any psychosis.
The researchers observed that patients with Parkinson’s detected a low NM-MRI signal in the ventral, posterior, and lateral sections of the substantia nigra. Thus the results confirmed that this tool has the ability to detect the familiar structural variations existing within this particular brain structure.
Connection between NM-MRI and psychosis
The next significant step of this research was to display the correlation between NM-MRI and dopamine activity. So the researchers gathered the measurements of dopamine release capacity in patients with no neurodegenerative illnesses. These measurements had been obtained using NM-MRI signals and positron emission tomography (TEM). It was observed that people displaying a higher intensity of NM-MRI signal had an increased capacity to release dopamine in the striatum. The researchers also observed that the NM-MRI measures of the blood flow in the regional cerebral area were comparable to the functional-MRI (fMRI) scan measurements of the same.
The researchers finally studied the link between NM-MRI signal and the intensity of psychosis. They discovered that extreme symptoms of psychosis were observed in patients with higher frequency of NM-MRI signals in the nigrostriatal route of patients suffering from schizophrenia or those at the risk of developing schizophrenia. In general, psychosis is caused due to a dysfunction in the dopamine system of an individual. Greater synthesis capacity in the striatum and increased dopamine release are the two factors that characterize psychosis. The research findings revealed that NM-MRI detected dopamine anomaly and supported the role of the former as a key indicator for psychosis.
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