Inside the Mind: How SPECT Imaging Transforms Addiction Recovery

By Lisa Parsons, MD, Amen Clinics


What if you could see into your brain to understand the reasons for depression, anxiety, brain fog, mood instability, panic attacks, or obsessive thought patterns and more?  What if your doctor had more than your description of symptoms to guide care?  At the Amen Clinic, we do this every day.  Brain SPECT imaging allows us to see the functional status of the brain and therefore tailor treatment plans to the individual specific brain needs.


A Look at the Brain

Let me explain.  We look at the brain in 2 ways.

One is through blood flow of the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is the outside of the brain crucial for sophisticated cognitive functions such as reasoning, planning, decision making, language, memory, attention etc. The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body. It uses 25% of all the energy that is used to power your entire body every single day.  This means it requires huge amounts of oxygen and nutrient delivery.  Through this testing, we can see which areas of the cerebral cortex aren’t receiving enough of what it needs for proper functioning and, therefore, is leading to symptoms. Depending upon which area is struggling, symptoms may include those of ADHD, possibly mood instability or memory problems, panic attacks or many others. This testing shows us where to help and gives us clues about the cause or causes.


Why is this important?

It gives us targets to treat the underlying problems, whether they are from a head injury, low blood flow, infection, inflammation, toxins or neurodegeneration.

The second way brain SPECT imaging helps untangle the mystery of human emotions, is by showing us the activity levels in the emotional centers located deep inside of the brain. Is there too much or too little in specific regions? This is important because it allows us to precisely target the area causing symptoms, therefore, have better symptom relief.  Depression can be caused by either too much or too little activity in specific regions that are treated differently from each other.

This then allows for precision treatment. Likewise, anxiety can be caused by too much or too little activity in specific regions and we need to know which area or areas to target in order to give people relief.

This testing allows us to see if a person is vulnerable to addiction, the type of ADHD/ADD (which requires various types of treatment), if they are vulnerable to neurodegeneration such as dementia, and might they have been exposed to toxins or mold leading to symptom. It allows us to evaluate the underlying health of a person’s brain which then allows us to remove things causing problems and add methods of brain health support.


Shrouded in Stigma

It is unfortunate that people with a mental illness are sometimes shrouded in stigma that may prevent them from getting timely help. They may hide behind a façade, pretend to be okay because they don’t want to see themselves as weak or fear being judged by others. This can lead to self-deprecating thoughts and self-destructive behaviors. It cannot be overstated that this imaging allows people to feel validated, let go of self-judgment and let go of the shame they may have been carrying.

The reality is, we live through the brain we have, and the health of our brain determines how we think, how we feel and how we behave. Mental illness is a brain illness, not a character flaw. This imaging helps people realize this, develop a healthy relationship with their mental health (brain health) and begin carving a path to a better future.


Dr. Parsons is passionate about helping to end the stigma of mental illness which opens doors for people to seek help and improves the quality of life for not only the person seeking help but also their friends/family. Dr.Parsons graduated medical school from Wayne State University in Michigan, and completed her residency at Banner Good Samaritan in Phoenix, AZ. She has practiced in varied settings including consult liaison on medical floors and in emergency departments, inpatient psychiatry, medical director for the largest community mental health center in Northern Arizona, addiction and recovery work including detox, residential and outpatient.   877-838-0705