Brain scanning is helping scientists understand mental illness

by Julius Grothen, Katrine Rosenmejer, Liva Kasch Hansen, Marta Quatorze

Mental illness can be difficult to accept, both for the sick person and for the surroundings. It is a lot easier to diagnose a broken arm, than to diagnose a broken mind. Nevertheless, every fifth adult in Denmark has symptoms of a psychological disorder [1]. To be able to diagnose and medicate various mental illness, researchers are trying hard to get a better understanding of the mind. But their task is challenging. We have been talking to medical physicist Bryan Haddock about this subject.


Mental illness is affecting many people, but are poorly understood
Mental illness is affecting many people, but they are poorly understood

Emotions and brain scans

Emotions originates from our brain. Our brain consists of different compartments performing different tasks. When we experience something, parts of our brain get activated. These parts will then send signals to other parts of the brain or to the body. In this way we are able to move, think and feel [2]. When a person has a mental illness, something is working differently in the brain. This is one of the areas that Bryan Haddock and his co-workers are investigating at the Danish hospital Rigshospitalet.

“Psychiastry patients is a large group of patients, that is basicallyas inhibited or disabled as you can get. At the same time, we have very little to offer them”

Bryan Haddock, Medical Physics Expert

A look into the brain

It is the belief of Bryan Haddock that the answer to helping people with mental illnesses could be found within the function of the brain: “It is our hope to find out where things go wrong and how we could change that to help these patients”. One of the tools to do so is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI is a technique that can image the activation of the brain. This makes it possible to see which parts of the brain that activates during different stimuli. [2]

fMRI scanner used for mapping the changes in brain activity
fMRI scanner used for mapping the changes in brain activity

Locating Christmas spirit in the brain

As a part of a study Bryan Haddock and his co-workers tried to locate the Christmas spirit in the brain of people celebrating Christmas. Even though not directly related to mental illness, the results still contribute to the understanding of human emotions and could help develop new methods to further this understanding [4]. See more in the video below where we interview Bryan Haddock to learn more about this interesting experiment.


As explained in the video, the purpose of the experiment was not only to locate the Christmas spirit in the brain, but also to inform about the shortcomings of such experiments. Due to the complexity of the mind, one can never be quite sure that the activation appearing on the brain scan happens for the reasons we would expect. For example, we don’t know if the person is thinking or feeling something that is unrelated to what we are looking for. Therefore all research needs to be repeated in different settings before the results can be trusted. [3][4]

Nevertheless, this is a promising field and it is the hope of Bryan Haddock and others, that this kind of research will make the breakthroughs that are so desperately needed in the study of mental illness.

[1] Folker, P. Mental sundhed. SDU  (accessed at 16-08-18)

[2] Filippi, M. (2016). FMRI techniques and protocols (Second ed., Neuromethods). New York, NY: Humana Press. Pages 3-28

[3] Milham et al. (2017). Clinically useful brain imaging for neuropsychiatry: How can we get there? Depression and Anxiety, vol 34(7), pp. 578-587

[4] Hougaard et al. (2016). All in the mind: Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study. British Medical Journal. Vol 351

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