Study Shows Brain Differences In Interpreting Physical Signals In Mental Health Disorders


Researchers have shown why people with mental health disorders, including anorexia and panic disorders, feel physical signals differently.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have found that the part of the brain that interprets the body’s physical signals behaves differently in people with various mental health disorders, suggesting that it could be a target for future treatments.

Researchers studied “interoception” – the ability to sense internal body conditions – and whether there were any common brain differences during this process in people with mental health disorders. They found that a region of the brain called the mid-dorsal insula showed different activity during interoception in a range of disorders, including depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders.

Many people with mental health disorders experience physical symptoms differently, whether it is an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in anorexia or a feeling of not having enough air in panic disorder. .

The results, reported in The American Journal of Psychiatry, show that activity in the median dorsal insula could lead to these different interpretations of bodily sensations in mental health. An increased awareness of the differences in how people experience physical symptoms could also be helpful for people dealing with mental health disorders.

We all use exterior exception – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch – to navigate daily life. But interoception – the ability to interpret our body’s signals – is just as important for survival, even if it often happens unconsciously.

“Interoception is something that we all do all the time, although we may not be aware of it,” said lead author Dr Camilla Nord of the Cognitive and Human Sciences Unit. brain of MRC. “For example, most of us are able to interpret low blood sugar signals, such as fatigue or irritability, and know how to eat something. However, there are differences in how our brains interpret these. signals. ”

Differences in interoceptive processes have already been identified in people with eating disorders, anxiety and depression, panic disorder, substance abuse, and other mental health disorders. Theoretical models have suggested that disrupted cortical processing drives these changes in interoceptive processing, conferring vulnerability to a range of mental health symptoms.

Nord and his colleagues combined brain imaging data from previous studies and compared differences in brain activity during interoception between 626 patients with mental health disorders and 610 healthy controls. “We wanted to know if something similar is happening in the brain in people with different mental disorders, regardless of their diagnosis,” she said.

Their analysis showed that for patients with bipolar disorder, anxiety, major depression, anorexia, and schizophrenia, a part of the cerebral cortex called the median dorsal insula exhibited different brain activation when treating pain, hunger and other interoceptive signals compared to the control group.

The researchers then performed a follow-up analysis and found that the median dorsal insula did not overlap with regions of the brain altered by antidepressants or areas altered by psychological therapy, suggesting that it could be studied as a new target for future therapies to treat interoception differences.

“It is surprising that despite the diversity of psychological symptoms, there appears to be a common factor in how physical signals are processed differently by the brain in mental health disorders,” said Nord. “This shows how closely related physical and mental health is, but also the limitations of our diagnostic system – some important factors in mental health could be ‘transdiagnostic’, i.e. found in many diagnoses. . “

In the future, Dr Nord is planning studies to test whether this disturbed activation could be altered by new treatments for mental health disorders, such as brain stimulation.

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The research was supported by the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Center.

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