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Major depression (major depressive disorder) is a complex form of mental illness that can have a severe negative impact on the lives of people of almost all ages. Sometimes, mental health professionals have a hard time distinguishing the symptoms of depression in specific individuals. They also sometimes have difficulty convincing affected individuals of the seriousness of their depression symptoms. According to the results of two separate studies published in 2012, use of newly developed blood tests for depression can potentially help doctors overcome both of these obstacles when working with either teenagers or adults.

Major Depression Diagnosis Basics

According to the widely accepted guidelines set forth by an organization called the American Psychiatric Association, people with major depression must have multiple symptoms that seriously disrupt their participation in everyday life for a period of two weeks or longer. Examples of the required symptoms include intense forms of negative emotional states such as worthlessness, helplessness, sadness or guilt; a persistent or predominantly “down” state of mind; a persistent or predominant inability to experience emotional or sexual pleasure; a recurring state of fatigue or low energy; the presence of unusual sleepiness (hypersomnia) or sleeplessness (insomnia); unexplained weight fluctuations; impairments in the normal ability to think clearly, concentrate, or make decisions; and persistent or predominant suicide-related thoughts or actions.

Typically, mental health professionals rely on the symptoms reported by their patients when making a major depression diagnosis, the authors of a study published in 2012 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry explain. In many cases, this self-reporting gives doctors the opportunity to correctly identify people affected by the disorder. However, doctors sometimes fail to correctly diagnose major depression after receiving relevant reports from their patients. Factors that can potentially reduce the accuracy of self-reports of depression symptoms include the relative level of experience of the doctors making a diagnosis, the amount of time or resources available to diagnosing doctors, and the level of truthfulness or self-awareness of the person reporting his or her symptoms.

Blood Test for Teenagers

The diagnosis of major depression in teenagers can be especially difficult, according to the authors of a study published in 2012 in the journal Translational Psychiatry. The main reason for this difficulty is the wide range of mood variability that naturally occurs even in mentally healthy teens. The specific behaviors found in adolescents affected by major depression can also differ significantly from the behaviors that appear in depressed adults. Altogether, the researchers concluded that teens affected by depression have 11 biomarkers that distinguish them from teens who don’t have depression. The researchers also concluded that teens who only have depression have 18 different biomarkers that distinguish them from teens who have both depression and some type of medically serious anxiety.

Blood Test for Adults

In the study published in Molecular Psychiatry, a team of researchers used a similar blood-testing procedure to identify nine biomarkers that indicate the presence of major depression in adults. After identifying these biomarkers, the researchers created a blood test score—called an MDDScore—that measures a person’s chances of having depression.  After trying out this testing procedure on a group of study participants, the authors of the study concluded that the MDDScore accurately identifies depression in the vast majority of patients. Just as importantly, the blood test also typically accurately identifies people who don’t have depression.

Significance

The authors of the study published in Translational Psychiatry believe that their blood test gives doctors a powerful tool for identifying depression in teenagers. In turn, an appropriate diagnosis of teen depression can help reduce the short-term impact of the illness, as well as an affected individual’s long-term risks for experiencing continuing depression symptoms during adulthood.

The authors of the study in Molecular Psychiatry believe that their blood test may help convince adults with depression of the reality and potential seriousness of their depression-related symptoms. They also believe that the use of an objective testing procedure like a blood test may remove some of the stigma associated with a depression diagnosis and help patients perceive their illness as a treatable condition, rather than as a permanent, restrictive label or self-identity. In addition, future refinements of the MDDScore procedure may help doctors determine the best course of action for depression treatment.

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