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Spot Check: Mental Illnesses That Occur Together May Come from the Same Brain Regions

As anyone who’s ever suffered from depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness may tell you, mood and other psychological disorders tend to travel in packs. Yet, for some reason, they’ve continued to be treated as if they’re total loners.

That may be about to change.

Duke University researchers scanned the brains of about 1,200 students, determining that the same regions—the cerebellum and the pons—are irregularly structured in individuals experiencing various different psychological symptoms.

The cerebellum or “little brain” regulates balance and posture, coordination of voluntary movements, motor learning, and cognitive functioning. According to Ahmad Hariri, one of the neuroscientists who conducted the Duke research, neuropsychiatric researchers do not study the region enough.

The pons, which is involved with sensory analysis and motor control, contains structures that are connected to the cerebellum. It also contains structures that regulate consciousness and the sleep cycle. 

Since the rate of comorbidity for psychological disorders and mental illnesses is so high, it makes sense that the brains of those affected have structural abnormalities in common, making it possible to attack these problems at their roots instead of as individual issues.

The participants of the study were all Duke students; the sample bias makes it obvious that researchers need to take these findings to other populations and try to replicate them. Yet it’s hard to deny that the results of their work are intriguing.