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Experts Call for Brain Scans For All Those Diagnosed With Psychosis

Experts are calling for more brain scans in those with psychosis to help discover whether underlying health conditions may be the root cause.

More scans are required

Patients experiencing psychosis for the first time should be routinely given brain scans to rule out underlying physical illnesses, according to psychiatrists. A review involving more than 1,600 patients with a first episode of psychosis who underwent an MRI brain scan found that about 6% had a scan abnormality that led to a different diagnosis or a change to their clinical care.

Conditions detected by scans included encephalitis, brain tumors, infections, stroke, or dementia. The paper revealing the findings has been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

According to Dr. Graham Blackman, a psychiatrist and clinical lecturer at the University of Oxford and an author of the research,

“Patients presenting with psychosis may have another physical illness or condition causing their symptoms that can be identified using MRI scanning,”  “The reason this is so important is that in this subset of patients, the cause may be treatable and reversible, but the window to treat successfully can be relatively narrow.”


No current mandatory scanning

Although it is considered good practice to carry out a brain scan in new patients with psychosis, it is not mandatory. A previous appraisal by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) did not recommend scanning all patients because it was unclear how often clinically relevant brain abnormalities were discovered.

“At the moment, often it can be difficult arranging a timely MRI scan because it’s not part of routine care,” Blackman said, adding that he was aware of cases involving patients with brain tumors who had waited months for a diagnostic scan, delaying crucial treatment. “It can have huge implications on likely prognosis.”


Psychosis is an experience rather than a medical diagnosis in itself and involves losing touch with reality. It can manifest as hallucinations or delusions, such as the belief that people conspire to spy on you or cause you harm.

In some cases, an episode can be brought on by a traumatic experience, severe stress, drug use, or a side effect of medication. It can be a one-off experience or, for others, is a long-term mental health condition, such as schizophrenia. Treatment typically involves antipsychotic medicine and talking therapies, which can help people develop coping strategies.

Emerging evidence calls for more scanning

There is emerging evidence for a broader range of underlying causes requiring different treatments. Recent findings suggest an autoimmune response in the brain can trigger psychosis. Oxford psychiatrists are leading a separate immunotherapy trial to treat patients with psychosis who test positive for specific antibodies.

Prof Philip McGuire of the University of Oxford and a senior author of the study, advises that a review of Nice guidance was now warranted,

“We feel that this study addresses a critical knowledge gap in this area by showing that clinically relevant abnormalities occur frequently enough to justify making MRI scanning a routine part of the assessment of people presenting with psychosis for the first time.”


Oxford Health NHS Trust is evaluating the potential benefits of offering all people with a first episode of psychosis an MRI brain scan as part of their initial clinical assessment.

Prof Eileen Joyce, a psychiatrist and researcher at University College London who was not involved in the latest work, said that the study is essential because the finding of a brain abnormality changed the management of one in 18 patients.

In addition, it is increasingly recognized that young patients developing psychosis for the first time, without any other detectable neurological abnormality, may have an underlying and treatable form of brain inflammation (encephalitis). Routine MRI scans could help increase the detection of this abnormality, leading to critical early treatment.

What are your thoughts on the contents of this article? Do you think increased brain scanning is a good idea? Tell us more in the comments.


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