Head shots

Illustration of vein system in heads

An analysis of thousands of brain scans shows similar gray-matter loss in the brains of people with diagnoses as different as schizophrenia, depression and addiction.

By studying whole-brain images from nearly 16,000 people gathered from 193 studies, Stanford researchers identified a common pattern in a spectrum of psychiatric disorders widely perceived to be distinct. The findings, published in JAMA Psychiatry, call into question a long-standing practice of distinguishing psychiatric disorders by symptoms rather than brain pathology.

“Researchers have tended to interpret their biological findings in terms of the one disorder they’re focusing on,” says Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the study’s senior author.

Etkin and his team pooled data from the magnetic-resonance images of the brains of 7,381 patients with six diagnoses: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorders. Comparing the images with those from 8,511 healthy control subjects, the team found that gray-matter loss in three brain structures was similar among patients with different psychiatric conditions.

These structures — the left and right anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate — are parts of a network in the brain whose components tend to fire in synchrony. This network is associated with higher-level functions such as concentrating in the face of distractions, multitasking or task-switching, planning and decision-making, and inhibition of counterproductive impulses.