Doctors may soon be able to spot the early signs of depression before people are afflicted with the mental health problem, according to new research out of MIT and Harvard Medical School.

In reviewing the brain scans of children who had family histories of depression, researchers were able to find specific brain differences and patterns in comparison to those who didn’t have depression or a risk of depression. Using this type of scan to find the brain differences in children could be a preventive mental health measure of sorts — especially for kids who have no family history or unknown risk of depression.

Untreated and repetitive bouts of depression can only make it harder for someone to get help, so a preventive brain scan could aid in saving a large chunk of the population from suffering from the illness. Some 14.8 million American adults, and 2.8 million adolescents suffer from depression every year.

“We’d like to develop the tools to be able to identify people at true risk, independent of why they got there, with the ultimate goal of maybe intervening early and not waiting for depression to strike the person,” said John Gabrieli, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, in the press release. “If you can avoid that first bout, maybe it would put the person on a different trajectory.”

For the study, the researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 27 “high-risk” children, defined as non-depressed children who had a depressed parent. A family history of depression can increase a child’s chances of getting depressed later on by threefold. The researchers then compared them to 16 children who had no family history of depression.

The brain scans showed specific patterns in high-risk children, particularly in the sgACC and default mode network — brain regions whose activity is often linked to an unfocused mind. They also discovered hyperactive connections between the amygdala and the inferior frontal gyrus, and weak connections between the frontal and parietal cortex, which are involved in thinking and decision-making.

Brain scans to catch depression early may be beneficial to jumpstart treatment, but can depression truly be prevented? While not every high-risk person will be able to stave off depression entirely even if it's caught early, there are measures one can take in order to alleviate symptoms and prevent further progression. Sleeping enough every night, avoiding a high-fat, unhealthy diet (which has been linked to anxiety and depression), and exercising are the first and most effective ways to avoid depression. Instead of binge-watching TV, which has been shown to cause a higher risk of depression, go outside for a walk and some fresh air, as nature can have a beneficial impact on mental health. Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Source: Chai X, Hirshfeld-Becker D, Biederman J, Uchida M, Doehrmann O, Leonard J. Altered Intrinsic Functional Brain Architecture in Children at Familial Risk of Major Depression. Biological Psychiatry, 2016.