A new approach to understanding severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and affective disorders is to adopt a clinical staging model. Such a model defines the extent of the illness such that earlier and milder phenomena are distinguished from later, more impairing features. Part of the appeal of such a model is that it should have cross-diagnostic applications, but to date there has been no attempt to examine imaging or neurocognrtive evidence for staging in this way. We review these two domains of study with particular focus on major depression and bipolar affective disorder. Although there is some support for the staging model in affective disorders, conclusions are limited by the large variability in the clinical samples studied, especially with regard to the presence of psychotic symptoms. We suggest that future research needs to take a transdiagnostic and longitudinal approach.