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Ask the Experts


Why are pet scans performed on patients with mental illness if the results tend to be ambiguous?

Answered by: Michael Grunebaum

In general, PET scans are not well established as being clinically useful for patients with psychiatric illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. PET scans are used clinically in neurological illnesses, which may have psychiatric complications, such as Parkinson’s disease. However, in psychiatry, PET scans are mainly used for research on brain chemistry in an effort to uncover biological causes of mental illness. It is hoped that such research will lead to the development of diagnostic tests and better treatment.

Brain imaging methods such as PET scanning have opened up new frontiers for research into the biological roots of mental illness. Nonetheless, diagnosis and treatment today is still largely based on a thorough history and mental status exam by a qualified mental health professional. Patients with mental illness will probably benefit most from establishing a collaborative relationship with a mental health professional who they feel comfortable sticking with over an extended time.

Nonetheless, participation in a research study, whether with PET scanning or other methods, can also be a way to obtain evaluation and treatment. Research participation may also contribute to the development of better treatments in the future.