Neurobiological narratives: experiences of mood disorder through the lens of neuroimaging

Sociol Health Illn. 2013 Jan;35(1):66-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9566.2012.01478.x. Epub 2012 May 3.


Many scientists, healthcare providers, policymakers and patients are awaiting in anticipation the application of biomedical technologies such as functional neuroimaging for the prediction, diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. The potential efficacy of such applications is controversial, and functional neuroimaging is not yet routinely used in psychiatric clinics. However, commercial ventures and enthusiastic reporting indicate a pressing need to engage with the social and ethical issues raised by clinical translation. There has been little investigation of how individuals living with mental illness view functional neuroimaging, or of the potential psychological impacts of its clinical use. We conducted 12 semi-structured interviews with adults diagnosed with major depression or bipolar disorder, probing their experiences with mental health care and their perspectives on the prospect of receiving neuroimaging for prediction, diagnosis and planning treatment. The participants discussed the potential role of neuroimages in (i) mitigating stigma; (ii) supporting morally loaded explanations of mental illness due to an imbalance of brain chemistry; (iii) legitimising psychiatric symptoms, which may have previously been de-legitimised since they lacked objective representation, through objective representations of disorder; and (iv) reifying DSM-IV-TR disorder categories and links to identity. We discuss these anticipated outcomes in the context of participant lived experience and attitudes to biologisation of mental illness, and argue for bringing these voices into upstream ethics discussion.

Publication types

  • Personal Narrative
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Bipolar Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Bipolar Disorder / psychology
  • British Columbia
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Depressive Disorder / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Neuroimaging*
  • Qualitative Research
  • Self Report
  • Social Perception
  • Social Stigma
  • Surveys and Questionnaires