Neuroimaging in psychiatry: Potentials and pitfalls

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Forensic psychiatry. Two academic disciplines—neuroethics and neurolaw—attempt to study how medications and neuroimaging could impact forensic psychiatry.19 And in this golden age of neuroscience, psychiatrists specializing in forensics may be increasingly asked to opine on brain scans. This requires specific thoughtfulness and attention because forensic psychiatrists must “distinguish neuroscience from neuro-nonsense.”20 These specialists will need to consider the Daubert standard, which resulted from the 1993 case Daubert v Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc.21 In this case, the US Supreme Court ruled that evidence must be “‘generally accepted’ as reliable in the relevant scientific community” to be admissible. According to the Daubert standard, “evidentiary reliability” is based on scientific validity.21

How should we use neuroimaging?

While neuroimaging is a quickly evolving research tool, empirical support for its clinical use remains limited. The hope is that future neuroimaging research will yield biomarker profiles for mental illness, identification of risk factors, and predictors of vulnerability and treatment response, which will allow for more targeted treatments.1

The current standard of clinical care for using neuroimaging in psychiatry is to diagnose neurologic diseases. Although there are no consensus guidelines for when to order imaging, it is reasonable to consider imaging when a patient has22:

  • abrupt onset of symptoms
  • change in level of consciousness
  • deficits in neurologic or cognitive examination
  • a history of head trauma (with loss of consciousness), whole-brain radiation, neuro­logic comorbidities, or cancer
  • late onset of symptoms (age >50)
  • atypical presentation of psychiatric illness.


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