Washington: Scientists have developed a new technique which they say can accurately identify teenagers who are at greater risk of developing metal disorders such as anxiety and depression.
The new technique devised by a team from the University College London involves computer programs that can distinguish between brain scans of healthy adolescents and those who are at risk of developing any mental disorders.
"We have a technique which shows enormous potential to help us identify which adolescents are at true risk of developing anxiety and mood disorders, especially where there is limited clinical or genetic information," lead researcher Janaina Mourao-Miranda, a computer neuroscientist at UCL, was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
For their study, published online in the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers looked at 16 healthy adolescents who each had a bipolar parent, as well as 16 healthy adolescents whose parents had no history of psychiatric illness.
While the volunteers took part in two tasks in which they had to determine the gender of pairs of faces with emotional expressions -- happy and neutral or fearful and neutral --
while they had their brains scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging.
Previous studies have shown the brains of those with mood disorders respond differently when looking at emotional facial expressions than those without such disorders.
In three of the four cases, their new computer programme accurately identified the teen who belonged to either the low-risk or high-risk group.
Follow-up interviews 12 months to 45 months later showed that those teens identified as high risk often did develop mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
However, Mourao-Miranda cautioned that their study was a preliminary one and "needs to be replicated with more people."
Interestingly, the researchers found the programme was best able to discriminate between adolescents in the low-risk and high-risk groups when they were shown neutral faces.
This supports previous studies suggesting that people with anxiety or mood disorders are more likely to perceiveneutral faces as ambiguous or potentially threatening.
"Focusing on the brain`s response to neutral faces could help us diagnose the risk of mental disorders," Mourao-Miranda said.
Future research could see if this approach works for a wide variety of other mental illnesses, he added.
Mary Phillips, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, said: "Anxiety and mood disorders can have a devastating effect on the individuals concerned and on their families and friends.
"If we are able to identify those individuals at greatest risk early on, we can offer early interventions to delay, or even prevent, onset of these terrible conditions."
Most of the psychiatric disorders typically emerge in adolescence or early adulthood. However, there are no known biological markers that can accurately predict which adolescents may or may not develop these illnesses.
Even genetic risk cannot accurately predict the risk an individual faces, the researchers said.