Can You Get a Brain Scan for Mental Illness?

Scientists know that mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD originate in the brain. Research has also helped scientists discover which parts of the brain trigger and affect certain conditions. But even with all of that information, diagnosing a mental illness is far from easy. Unlike other conditions like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, there are no specific lab tests or tools that can detect mental health disorders. In fact, diagnosing a mental illness is a complex process that’s based on your symptoms, behavior patterns, and your doctor’s medical opinion.

To help bring some clarity to mental health diagnoses doctors, scientists, and behavioral health experts have started to look at brain scans as a way to help diagnose mental illness.

What Is A Brain Scan?

A brain scan is like an X-ray for your brain. The scan takes very detailed pictures of your brain’s size, shape, and activity, which helps doctors see and understand what’s going on in your mind. The most common types of brain scans include:

  • Electroencephalography or EEG, which shows how your brain acts during certain psychological states such as alertness and drowsiness.
  • Computerized Tomography or CT, which uses ionizing radiation to take pictures of the structure of your brain.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging or MRI, which uses echo waves to produce pictures of your brain. MRIs also help doctors detect how much grey matter, white matter, and cerebrospinal fluid you have in your brain.
  • Positron Emission Tomography or PET, which injects radioactive sugar glucose into your veins through an IV. Unlike the CT scan and the MRI, which take pictures of how your brain looks, the PET scan shows how your brain functions by looking at which neurons in your brain react to the sugar glucose.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI, which combines pictures from multiple MRIs to show how your brain functions.

What Do They Look For in a Brain Scan?

Regardless of the type of brain scan you have, neuroimaging can help:

  • Detect damaged brain tissue, an injured skull, or impaired blood vessels
  • Identify bleeding, blood clots, and other signs of a stroke
  • Diagnose brain cancer
  • Researchers study healthy brain development, mental illness, and the effects of mental health treatments on the brain

Brain scans can also help doctors find the right diagnosis for mood and behavioral problems, but they are not yet intricate enough to reliably diagnose mental health conditions on their own.

Can Brain Scans Diagnose Mental Illness?

doctor using brain scan to diagnose mental illnessAs wonderful as brain scans are, they cannot singlehandedly detect mental illnesses. That doesn’t mean images of the brain can’t help detect and diagnose mental health conditions, though. When used alongside traditional assessment techniques, brain scans can help narrow down brain abnormalities and confirm mental health diagnoses. A single brain scan probably can’t tell you the exact mental health condition you have. But images of your brain can help your doctor understand what’s going on with your mental health, confirm your doctor’s clinical observations, and help them develop an appropriate treatment plan. There are many benefits brain scans provide that help detect, diagnose, and confirm mental health disorders.

How Brain Scans Can Benefit The Mental Health Diagnosis Process

Images of your brain can give your doctor incredible insight into your mental health. Usually, doctors use your symptoms and their medical opinion to diagnose mental health conditions. Brain scans can help improve that process. Some of the benefits brain scans can provide include:

  • Identifying lesions in the frontal or temporal lobes and the thalamus and hypothalamus. Brain lesions can cause a number of psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and anorexia as well as cognitive dysfunction. Brain scan images pinpointing the exact location of these lesions can help confirm specific mental illnesses.
  • Distinguishing the difference between mental illness, neurodegenerative disorders, and brain tumors. A tumor in the frontal lobe can cause apathy, which doctors can easily mistake as a symptom of depression. The images produced by brain scans help doctors get a detailed look inside your brain, helping them distinguish between symptoms caused by tumors, mental illness, and neurodegenerative disorders like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Showing that the volume of various brain regions decreases during a psychotic episode. Usually, during a psychotic episode, the brain is in a state of stress overload. An influx of stress hormones causes other regions of the brain to shrink in size. Brain scans, especially fMRIs, help locate the exact part of the brain that’s affected which can help doctors confirm a suggested mental health diagnosis.
  • Showing reduced volume in the frontal lobe region of the brain which tends to trigger major depressive disorder. This knowledge helps doctors better understand depression, and how it works.
  • Letting doctors know what areas of the brain trigger certain mental health conditions. As doctors are able to narrow down which regions of the brain cause which conditions, they’ll be able to develop new, more effective approaches to treating mental health conditions.

Limitations of Brain Scans

Even though brain scans have many benefits, they do have some limitations. Mental illness is tricky to diagnose and not everyone with the same diagnosis will show the same brain abnormalities. Also, there might be multiple reasons for a single type of brain abnormality. Brain scans might also have difficulty identifying brain abnormalities during the early stages of certain mental health conditions. Generally, though, brain scans provide limited insight when:

  • Mental illness presents differently in different individuals
  • Mental health patients have overlapping symptoms or multiple diagnoses
  • A mental health condition is in the earlier stages

Treating Mental Health With Evidence-Based Brain Science

Here at Stoneridge Centers, we take a different approach to recovery from mental health and addiction challenges. We combine the best of brain science with clinical support by providing world-class, brain-focused treatment in a comfortable, supportive, and non-judgmental setting. Our expert staff members use brain scans, brain mapping, and neurofeedback to help diagnose and treat mental health conditions.

Mental illness doesn’t have to control your life. We can help you understand your condition and manage its symptoms in a healthy way that allows you to live a happy, productive, and thriving life. Call us today at 928-583-7799 if you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges.

Innovative, Evidence-Based Therapies

Because mental health and addiction concerns are so often interconnected, we utilize research-based approaches with evidence-based outcomes that promote overall healing and recovery.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

This low-impact magnetic stimulation activates neurons inside the brain, relieving symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

qEEG/Brain Mapping

Using brain scanning and readings, we create a map of our patients’ brains, helping us develop more targeted and effective treatments.


This process assists patients in visualizing their own brain functionality through continuous EEG readings.

Spravato Therapy

We use carefully monitored doses of Spravato to help patients struggling with complex mental health disorders, including severe depression.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Patients use this practice to help reframe intrusive or negative thought patterns and develop coping techniques for long-term recovery.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

This practice helps patients learn to regulate emotions, communicate more effectively, and process their own thoughts and feelings..

Eye Movement Desensitization (EMDR)

Licensed and trained therapists guide patients through this technique for managing stress and anxiety on an ongoing basis.

Individual Therapy

Patients experience one-on-one therapy sessions with a licensed therapist to provide a safe and private place to recover and heal.

Group/Family Therapy

Patients can practice the skills and techniques they have learned in treatment with others in a safe, therapist-guided space.

Contact StoneRidge Centers

5940 E. Copper Hill Dr. Ste B & E, Prescott Valley, AZ. 86314

We exercise progressive, leading brain science in our treatment approach for patients in our community and across the country who are struggling with mental health and addiction challenges.