Diagnosing Mental Illness Using Electroencephalography
Just talking with a professional is often the best way to identify a deficiency in the brain. When something is amiss in the cells of the brain, a person may find it hard to speak coherently, stay on topic or remember the details of words spoken moments before. While this conversation can sometimes help experts to spot a mental health issue, it can be difficult for these same experts to understand why the mental health of the person is at stake. In other words, they may see the symptoms but not see the cause.
An electroencephalogram, or EEG, is one tool mental health professionals can use to dig into the workings of the brain in order to definitively diagnose a disease that could impact behavior. While the test is an exciting scientific development, as it does seem capable of providing valuable information that could be used in the fight against some kinds of disease, it might not be the right way in which to address all types of mental health dysfunction.
How an EEG Works
Many diagnostic tests performed on the brain look for structural difficulties that could cause shifts in behavior. Tumors, bone shards and other structural damage can pop into focus in an x-ray or an MRI scan, and they can help the treatment team to develop a proper plan of action. An EEG works just a little differently. Instead of providing information about what the brain and associated structures look like, an EEG provides a snapshot of how the brain is actually working.
During an EEG, small electrodes are placed on the outside of the head, and they’re attached to a computer. This computer measures all the electrical impulses that brain cells trade with one another, and all the portions of the brain that are at work. As the test moves forward, the provider of the test might ask people to perform certain types of activities, like problem solving or storytelling, and then measure how the electrical activity changes due to those behaviors. Even if people don’t perform tasks, the provider of the test might record what the person is doing at each moment, so interpreters can measure how the brain cells are functioning.
As an article in the Annals of Clinical Psychiatry points out, this test is attractive because it doesn’t rely on patient cooperation. People who are hostile to the idea of taking a test, or who are unable to participate in the test in a reasonable way, can still be assessed with an EEG, as their brain cells will trade electrical impulses whether the person wants to be tested or not.
An EEG might also be attractive to a patient, as there are no painful needles or intrusive medical interventions required. The electrodes are small and easy to ignore, and the test goes by relatively quickly. People afraid of invasive medical tests might find an EEG to be a reasonable alternative.
An EEG can be helpful when medical practitioners are trying to determine if a client has epilepsy, according to the Mayo Clinic. This disorder can cause unusual electrical activity in the brain that can lead to seizures.
But an EEG might also be used when medical practitioners suspect that one of these disorders is in play:
- Head injuries
- Swelling in the brain
- Sleep disorders
- Memory loss
Any of these issues could be caused by an unusual spark of activity deep inside the brain, and an EEG could bring that issue into sharper focus. When paired with an interview and a full medical workup, the information in an EEG could provide medical experts with a great deal of data that could be used to amend a person’s illness.
Unfortunately, reading an EEG is sometimes difficult. Experts typically compare one person’s results with the results of healthy people, and when discrepancies appear, the experts look for other scans that also seem askew and provide the same diagnosis when two sets of scans seem to synch. It’s all very complicated, and sometimes, small details are missed while the wrong signals are augmented.
As a result, EEGs can provide misleading information, and that might lead to mistaken diagnoses.
In fact, according to a study in The Psychiatrist, false positives provided by EEGs can be as high as 50 percent, and those who have mental illnesses may have even more false positives than the general public. It’s a serious problem, and it should be considered whenever this kind of test is ordered. It simply cannot replace traditional diagnostic methods, and sometimes, the information it provides isn’t exactly reliable.
While the results of EEGs can be suspect, even when the provider is using the test for a traditional diagnosis of a well-known disease, some experts believe that measuring electrical activity in the brain could be the best way in which to find a mental illness. These experts suggest that some disorders that impact behavior have their roots in the messages brain cells share with one another on a regular basis, and as a result, those changed signals could impact how the disease should be treated.
In an article in The Guardian, for example, researchers suggest that unusual electrical activities in the brains of siblings of those who have schizophrenia could suggest that the other siblings are also at risk for the disease. If this theory proves true, the research suggests that a positive EEG test could allow experts to provide treatments and prevent the full-blown disorder from forming, as they’ll be treating people who don’t yet show symptoms of this disorder.
Similarly, researchers at Harvard Medical School suggest that young children provided with an EEG might show strange electrical activity in specific portions of their brains, when their tests are compared to those of healthy children, and these scans could allow experts to diagnose autism early in life.
These findings are important, as mental illnesses like this are notoriously hard to diagnose. People might just seem a little unusual, rather than mentally ill, but ignoring the symptoms altogether could allow a problem to blossom and bloom, rather than fading away. If a test could help a practitioner to spot an illness despite the lack of definitive interview proof, isn’t it a positive development? Experts are divided.
Words of Caution
Even researchers who believe scans are helpful suggest that more must be known before they can be recommended for everyone. In order for the tests to be most helpful, an intensive library of scans of healthy people and scans of those with mental illness must be developed, as these libraries would provide people with comparative results to study when they’re attempting to help their clients. Without this kind of intensive library, it might be hard for people reading EEGs to really understand the changes they’re seeing and provide advice about what the results mean.
In addition, the large rate of false positives should give people pause when they’re considering EEGs. Some people might be diagnosed with conditions they don’t really have when an EEG is in play, or they might be asked to accept a diagnosis that doesn’t really fit them.
Also, some insurance companies won’t pay for EEGs, as they’re not considered an accepted form of diagnosis for certain types of conditions. The insurance provider Aetna, for example, suggests that the results of EEGs in people with these conditions might be difficult to interpret:
- Learning disabilities
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Since the benefit of an EEG in people with these conditions is unclear, the insurance company might not pay for the test at all, and as a result, families might be asked to foot the bill for the care.
When it comes to dealing with a serious psychiatric disorder, families have many different types of treatment options to explore and options to consider. This is especially true of families that might be dealing with both an addiction and a mental illness at the same time. Thankfully, most treatment providers are willing to discuss each option openly, ensuring that clients understand the proposed therapy and the possible benefits it can bring. Listening closely during these conversations and asking questions, as needed, can allow families to really understand their choices, so they’ll be in a good position to advise the treatment team on the options they’ll accept and those they think might best be considered optional.
If you’re looking for a treatment facility that will work with you in a close and respectful manner, so the person you love can really get better, we’d like to help. All of Foundations Recovery Network’s facilities are designed to provide help for both addictions and mental illnesses at the same time. Each professional who participates in our program is willing to really work with you and understand your concerns, as well as the concerns of the person who needs care.
We can help link you with the right program for your situation. Please call our toll-free number to speak with an admissions coordinator about your situation and the help your family needs. Everything you tell us will be kept confidential, and at the end of our conversation, you might have all of the info you need to get the person you love the right kind of help.