Healthy Brain Network Seeks Early Markers For Childhood Mental Disorders

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The largest comprehensive study of children’s brains was under way this week right in New York.

As CBS2’s Dr. Max Gomez reported Thursday, the Healthy Brain Network seeks to find early markers for diagnosing and managing mental health and learning disorders.

Many mental health and learning disorders have symptoms that often overlap. Some signs of autism, bipolar disorder, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, can be very similar – and that can delay the right diagnosis and treatment.

The Healthy Brain Network aims to remedy that situation.

Jimmy Squillante, 6, was getting an EEG helmet put on Thursday. He did not seem too happy to be wearing it – especially since even high-functioning autistic kids such as Jimmy are often easily overstimulated.

“He struggles with some sensory issues; routine changes; staying on task, things like that. He hyperfocuses on certain things,” said Jimmy’s mother, Meg Squillante. “A lot of stimming – the hand-flapping and things like that; rocking back and forth.”

Even so, it was a few years before Jimmy was diagnosed with autism. To improve on that delay for other kids is what the EEG electrode array is all about.

Jimmy is one of more than 1,000 New York City kids who have so far undergone a battery of psychiatric, behavioral, cognitive and medical tests.

“We need that many children in order to capture the variation among individuals. The differences biologically can be subtle, and we need to be able to get large-scale data sets in order to capture and better understand these biological correlates of illness,” said Dr. Michael Milham of the Child Mind Institute.

That is why data from a wide variety of tests are important, because researchers do not know where the subtle differences will pop up.

In one test, Jimmy was copying block diagrams to assess pattern recognition. Meanwhile, MRI brain scans will look for anatomical differences in children’s brains with different issues.

Even physical coordination and fitness will be measured and become part of the database.

“You can imagine reaching a time where we have objective tools to help psychiatrists and psychologists I choosing one treatment versus another for an individual,” Milham said.

An important part of the initiative is that all the massive amount of data gathered will be freely available to brain scientists, child psychiatrists, engineers, and anyone interested in improving childhood and adolescent mental health. Parents interested in participating in the program can learn more at http://www.healthybrainnetwork.org/participate/.

It is all being funded by private philanthropy.

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