Scientists are using machine learning, added to conventional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to identify the regions of the brain causing dissociative symptoms in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, a study published on Friday by the American Journal of Psychiatry shows. MRI, which has been used by scientists for years in PTSD detection, now infused with machine learning has helped researchers uncover and measure changes in functional connections between different regions of the brain in women.

Dissociative symptoms, such as amnesia, experiencing an out-of-body experience, or feeling emotionally numb, are common in people with PTSD and are believed to be coping mechanisms, study co-author Dr. Milissa Kaufman, director of the Dissociative Disorders and Trauma Research Program at McLean Hospital, said. “This new work may help us to establish a new standard of care for traumatized patients with PTSD who struggle with significant symptoms of dissociation,” she added in a statement.

Despite the fact that experiencing these symptoms intensely or for a long time can deteriorate an individual’s ability to function, it has historically been near impossible to prove they exist, as conventional MRI has failed to discover any changes in brain function. As a result, phycologists often fail to ask patients about them, or effectively treat them, the researchers said.

In the study, the researchers applied the technique developed by one of the study co-authors, Meiling Li, of the Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, to functional MRI tests of 65 women with histories of childhood abuse and current PTSD.

These findings may eventually enable psychologists to better administer treatments to manage these symptoms, by targeting these connections, the researchers said.

“We hope that this biological evidence will be particularly compelling regarding the legitimacy of these psychiatric symptoms,” study co-author Lauren A.M. Lebois, director of neuroimaging at McLean Hospital, said in a statement.

“This moves us one step closer to identifying a ‘fingerprint’ of dissociation in the brain that could be used as an objective diagnostic tool,” she said.