Reading the Brain: FDA Approves First Scan for Diagnosing ADHD

It’s the first test to diagnose the behavioral disorder using brain wave patterns, but it won’t be the last. The idea of reading the brain’s activity for clues to mental illness is gaining ground.

As Roxanne Khamsi reported in TIME recently, researchers are learning enough about the signature patterns of normal, and abnormal brain activity that they believe it may be possible to diagnose mental illnesses ranging from depression, schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) by studying readouts of brain waves, much in the way they now rely on elecrocardiograms (EKGs) to diagnose heart problems.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Neba Health’s device for children aged six years to 17 years. It relies on electroencephalogram (EEG) readings, which track electrical impulses released by active nerves. The test lasts 20 minutes and records the frequency of impulses emitted every second. By studying the resulting wave pattern, doctors can determine with relative confidence whether the child has ADHD, which is characterized by difficulty concentrating and paying attention.

As Khamsi wrote, researchers are also investigating how more sophisticated brain imaging techniques, including functional MRI (fMRI) could also improve diagnosis of ADHD:

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